Hoping for a Comeback

by Bill Holmes

Nothing can save us that is possible. –W. H. Auden

Several years ago I stood by the bedside of an elderly woman who was in the last minutes of her life. Her husband of sixty years and her son stood opposite me. She took a few agonal breaths then ceased all signs of life. Her heart stopped beating soon thereafter. Her husband gasped and looked at me as if to ask, “What is happening?” I will never forget his arms flailing upward as he said, “You mean it is just like that and it is over? Just like that? Can’t we have a few more minutes?”

How often from the waiting rooms and hallways of hospitals do I hear, “Let us hope he can rally again!” or “Is it really over?” The language of loss and the language of hope may, at times, come into conflict as we face end-of-life issues. Withdrawing treatment or life support is often viewed as a defeat after “battling” an illness. Instead of recognition of a life well lived, the language of losing and winning takes center stage.

Recently a man with lung cancer with brain metastases spoke to me of his need to fight to the very end so that his family would know that he gave his best to defeat the cancer. From the pulpit, in the prayer meeting, or even in the waiting room, the language of doing battle with death, “fighting the good fight,” and the necessity of doing so is often heard.

In our culture we are prone to do everything we can to continue life, sometimes even when life is clearly over. We place great hope and trust in medical treatment to sustain life. We can keep a heart beating for a long time after the brain has ceased to show any signs of functioning. We can and do keep on resuscitating even when it is clear that what is left is hardly recognizable as the person we knew and loved.

Acknowledging that death is unavoidably near may change the dynamics at the bedside. Sometimes a family objects to talking about imminent death with the dying loved one. For some it is difficult to sit next to a dying friend knowing that the friend is cognizant of imminent death. A certain discomfort may take hold, so we tend to leave the bedside of the dying as our discomfort with death overtakes us.

The dynamics of hope in a “hopeless” situation deserve our thought and prayer. Is it giving up hope to accept that the end of life has indeed come? What is the basis of our hope as people of faith? Verhey captures an important truth with these words:

“To its great credit medicine resists death. But unless there is some other (nonmedical) response to this threat of death, unless there is some confidence that death will not have the last word, unless there is some basis for hope in God, we are finally abandoned to death and all its threats are made good.”

When the last breath is drawn or when brain waves cease, is that the end? Is there some basis for hope? In church we tend to have easy, pat, and glib answers to such questions, but they tend not to fly well at the deathbed, for it is there grief must first do its work. Some well-meaning person may say, “He is with Jesus now” or “We will see him in the resurrection.” For most such is neither helpful nor necessarily good theology.

Since our dying is a part of our lives, we must consider how we will leave this life. The dying person will hopefully draw the last breath surrounded by loved ones, but such is not a given. We often die in specialized units that are dedicated to sustaining life. The well-trained medical staff is quite good at what they do, working diligently and with compassion. But medicalized dying, even that offered by hospice and palliative care, comes with the risk of loss of community for the dying person.

We need to articulate a theology of dying just as we have a theology of living. As pastors we need to help our congregants deal with these difficult questions. Often our theology, embedded from childhood, is simply not up to the task. Quoting a few scriptures will not get it done. We must give serious reconsideration to what scripture says, or does not say, about life after death, the meaning of “salvation,” resurrection, healing, and miracles. In doing so, we may be able to live hopefully with impending death, even our own. No easy task!

This article was previously published on Church Health Reader through a column by Bill Holmes, Interfacing.

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