I was on my way out the door to visit a church member in hospice care. My travelling communion in hand, I remembered the stack of cards in my office–made by church kids for anyone who might be sick or homebound. This seemed like the perfect time to make use of their ministry gift, so I went to grab one.
They were cheerful pictures–mostly of flowers–brightly colored, made with love, and all bearing the same message: Get well soon!
Yeah, I can’t take that to hospice.
I’ll save those cards for other visits–ones where the prospect of getting “well” is a probable outcome. In the meantime, it makes me think of all the ways we approach people who are dying… And, out of our own desires, or our own discomfort with the reality of death, find ourselves imposing all sorts of encouragements, expectations and platitudes that are cringe-worthy. I know that I have approached a hospital room on occasion, ready to lighten the moment with my natural charisma and contagious charm… Only to realize that I’ve introduced a grossly inappropriate energy into a room filled with suffering. Not my finest pastoral moment–but, one that I had to learn from. And probably will again.
Nobody means to! But something about the imminence of death makes us start quoting Hallmark cards and Joel Osteen cross stitch pillows. We want to make it ok. It’s a natural human impulse. But sometimes that need to ‘say’ something helpful is… well, pretty unhelpful. Here are some things to try and refrain from saying–or writing–to people who are in the last stages of life.
1. Get well soon. Yes, I mentioned that one already. But there are variations: Feel better! for instance. Or any of the other equally chipper things you could say that imply an outcome other than that which is inevitable.
2. You can fight this! This one is especially tricky in the social media age. Often, when people are diagnosed with a serious illness, their loved ones form online support groups. The network offers encouragement, shares updates, and coordinates all kinds of assistance for the family, from transportation to meals to fundraising. It is a great resource. Until… what if it becomes clear that the illness is not going away? What if the person and their family decide to cease treatment and seek comfort care? Those voices of encouragement can unintentionally sound like voices of judgement. Maybe what’s meant is, “I wish this wasn’t happening to you.” But, it could be that what the sick person hears is “You can’t give up.” “Don’t let us down.” “We’ve all been rooting for you, and if you go and die now, we are all going to be REALLY DISAPPOINTED IN YOU.” Cheering someone on towards better health is wonderful. But there comes a point at which this person/family might need a different kind of support; and in our hyper-connected, very public venues of communication, it can be difficult to gauge those shifts and nuance our words accordingly.
3. God must need you in heaven. Just… don’t. God is not a needy, co-dependent boyfriend or a selfish employer. While heaven might be a comfort, the idea that God is enforcing this dramatic relocation is fundamentally troubling… not to mention theologically problematic. Plus… you know what, it’s really just a dumb thing to say.
4. Everything happens for a reason. Because maybe it does, and maybe it doesn’t. Some things just suck, and sometimes life is just unfair, and sometimes, things happen that cannot be made sense of. Most people who are dying learn to find peace with that truth…perhaps we can learn it from them, and with them.
5. Can we interest you in a 15-thousand-dollar funeral package, so that your family “won’t have to worry about anything” after you’re gone? Do not get me started on these vultures. I’m working on a whole other post about how to avoid the 4- and 5-digit price tag that supposedly comes with death. But what I find especially troubling about this particular sales pitch is the implication that the dying person can PURCHASE a measure of comfort and peace for their loved ones. Which of course they would do, at any cost, if it were possible. This practice is manipulative, opportunistic and just all around gross, and I wish hospitals, nursing homes and hospice facilities would do more to shield folks from it. Like I said–working on it! (I call it a “sticking it to the man funeral plan.” Coming soon).
Ok, all this said… Please do not avoid people who are dying, just because you “don’t know what to say.” Dying people are still people. And in some cases, they are still YOUR particular people. Here are some things that you could talk about:
1. I’m so sorry you are dealing with this. Simple. True. Go with it.
2. You are so loved. Or variations–God loves you. I love you. So many people love you. Etc.
3. You are not alone. Or variations–God is with you. I’m here. We are all right here. Etc.
4. Have you read/did you watch/what do you think about… Insert book, show, or current event of your choice. Just because a person is dying does not mean they have ceased to have thoughts about other things. There can still be life, and conversations about the world. There is still time for connection and relationship as friend/sibling/spouse/child, etc. In fact–isn’t this how we all hope to spend our last days, when it’s our turn?
5. Do you remember that time when…? So many good things start with that question.
And finally, remember that showing up is everything. You don’t have to say all the things or answer all the stuff. In fact, the person you are visiting might not feel like talking. Or they might not be able to talk. You could always offer a prayer or read scripture, if that is your thing (and theirs). But there is no magic combination of verbiage that is going to change this situation. Practice the ministry of presence–even if you don’t consider yourself a minister–and trust that it matters. Because it does.
Here’s hoping I will not be visiting your death bed any time soon. But if I do– I will tell you that you don’t need anyone’s permission to die, if that’s what it seems time for you to do. I will tell you that you are loved and cared for and not alone. I will recall for you some good thing that I will always remember from your well-lived life.
Or I might not say anything at all. Even if there is no “Get well soon” to be spoken–all will be peace, and all will be well, in the end.