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The Gift of Presence

Submitted by: Van Brenlove


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The Gift of Presence

Submitted by: Van Brenlove

Very early in my writing life I remember a meeting in New York City with an editor I greatly admired.  He must have sensed some of my unease as I talked about my writing and flying life in relation to his own career.  I still remember him telling me that he would trade experience for youth anytime.  Through the many years since that day his words have come back to me more than a few times.  My father put it a little more succinctly when he said, “It’s a shame to waste youth on young people.”  For the past seven years I worked with a class of people, many of whom would have seen those words as the Holy Grail.  The dying.

Under the best of circumstances the journey to the end of a life is sometimes a solitary one.  But all too often the dying feel as though they have been abandoned, and they don’t understand why.  Whenever I visited with someone whose family was seldom if ever present, I always thought of a comment a colleague once made to me, “It isn’t that we don’t deal with death well in this country, it’s that we don’t deal with it at all.”

The truth is it’s hard to look at someone on whose shoulders you used to ride and see a body so atrophied it can barely move from side to side in a bed.  Or stand by the person who brought you comfort and strength all your life only to see them reduced to someone staring through unfocused eyes, barely recognizing you as you walk into the room.  The reasons we shy away from the dying are probably as many and varied as there are individuals in the world.  But it’s also true that, whatever those reasons are, they probably aren’t good enough.  No matter who we are, each of us can make a difference when someone we love is dying.  But it’s a bit like those ads for the lottery:  if you expect to win the money, you have to buy a ticket.  If you want to make a difference for someone who is facing the end of their days, you have to be willing to share the experience with them.  You have to be there. 

Why is something that is seemingly so simple so hard?  Fear is one answer.  Fear of saying or doing the wrong thing.  Fear of looking at the reality of what lies ahead for each of us.  Fear of letting our own emotions show through the façade of strength and determination we are convinced we need to put forth for the benefit of those we love.  And, maybe above all, fear of the unknown.  If we’ve never been with someone as they take their last breath, we don’t know what to expect and that can be just plain scary.  But just as experiencing the miracle of birth is a life changing event for most of us, being with someone as they leave this life for the next can be equally profound and miraculous.  As a hospice chaplain with whom I worked once said, “It’s amazing how gently God takes us from this life to the next.” 

Sadly, if our fear wins, what gets lost is the last opportunity to talk to each other about a life that mattered.  Many in hospice know what an honor it is to share the intimate experience of dying with a patient they have come to know and, often, grown to love.  But they also know how much more precious it is to share that same experience with someone we have loved for a lifetime.  To ignore that truth for fear that unwanted emotions and unwelcome reality may rise to the surface is about as effective as whistling through the graveyard at night to keep the goblins at bay.  We may make a lot of noise but the fear doesn’t go away.

And you aren’t the only one who is afraid. Regardless of the depth of someone’s faith, as death becomes more certain, however prevalent or momentary they may be, fears arise.  We tend to believe that God has a hand in almost every aspect of our lives but that He has somehow forgotten the dying process.  It’s not a reflection of the strength of anyone’s faith but rather a consequence of the human condition.  I recently watched a program in which football great Eric Dickerson asked his dying friend, Hall-of-Famer Walter Peyton, if he was afraid of dying.  Dickerson commented that Peyton’s reply was, “Of course I’m afraid of dying because I’ve never died before.” 

The easiest way to not deal with the death of someone dear to us is to avoid it.  But the price we pay for that avoidance is regret.  And when that someone dies, nothing hinders the healing process more than regrets.  The “what if’s”, the words left unsaid, the fences not mended or the feelings unexpressed can become a seemingly unbearable weight to carry forward into a life that has been permanently changed.  However difficult it may be to watch a loved one die, it is immeasurably more burdensome to wish you could go back and change what you didn’t do when you had the chance.  The pitfalls of doing nothing for fear of doing the wrong thing are far greater than the reality of a misstep taken out of love.

Be prepared to answer the tough questions honestly and lovingly.  The question I heard most often as a hospice bereavement counselor was, “Why doesn’t God just take me?  I’m no use to anyone anymore.”  The first of the many times I was asked that question I remembered what a pastor said one Sunday morning.  “Take two fingers and put them along the side of your neck.  If you can feel a pulse, God’s not done with you yet.”  I believe too that underlying the question of “why am I still here?” is the even more pressing need to know that our lives still matter, even as they are coming to an end.  The door has been opened to ask more of the hard questions, so walk through it:  Are you afraid of dying?  Do you want to talk about it?  Are there things you would like to say to me or someone else?  Maybe most importantly, do you realize that I will be here for you when you need me?   It’s also a time when a simple touch, a sympathetic ear and a loving response can be the difference between hope and despair. 

What then is it like to be with someone at their time of death?  So far, I’ve neither experienced a choir of heavenly angels singing nor have I seen the black shroud of darkness fill a room.  Yet in many ways a time of death is filled with miraculous promises still unseen and experiences we can only imagine.  More often than not those who are dying see and talk to loved ones who have gone before them.  Sometimes, moments before their last breath is taken, a joyful look of utter amazement blankets their face.  Almost always a sense of peaceful contentment arrives at the time of passing.  As that same hospice chaplain put it, “It’s as if the veil between this life and the next becomes thinner and thinner until we move seamlessly from one place to another.”

Being separated from someone we love is probably the most difficult thing we can encounter in this life.  Voluntarily starting that separation before the end arrives is foolhardy at best and ultimately devastating at worst.  The final hours spent with someone we love will most certainly include times of sadness and tears.  But those hours often include an equal number of smiles and even laughter as families reminisce about precious times to cherish and a life well lived.  The gift of your presence is a one-time gift that is priceless, the benefits of which will last you a lifetime.

About the author: Van Brenlove was a Men's Ministry Coordinator at Mt. Pisgah Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pa. for five years.  During that time he provided a role model, direction and leadership to the men of a congregation including Bible Studies, participation in worship services and a number of activities, including counseling for men.  Van was also a Volunteer Coordinator for Heartland Hospice for two and a half years and a Bereavement Counselor for Grane Hospice -both of which are located in Pittsburgh - for four and a half years.  During that time he facilitated about eight to ten GriefShare groups while working for Grane. Van has written a number of articles related to hospice for local, trade and corporate publications.

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