Last spring after one of our most active church members passed away, a young man who had loved her but had not been able to visit before she died, asked me to speak about the sadness we feel when we lose someone and never got to say goodbye to him or her.
This is an experience many of us have had, and today, one day after All Saints Day, is a good time to explore it together. It's a hard place, I know. I came home from rehearsing for the school play twenty-six years ago to learn that my father had died of a heart attack that afternoon in a New York hospital, and that's not something you get over. It's something you learn to live with over time you say your goodbye in your own way -- but you always wish you could have had a final word with them, a kiss, a blessing, a something.
We don't always get that.
Maybe not getting to say goodbye to my father before he died is a reason I've always been especially drawn to deathbed scenes in movies and to famous last words. I do know my father's last words, and I treasure them: he told his oldest brother Marvin, "Take care of my babies." Emily Dickinson's last words were "Let us go in; the fog is rising." So appropriate for a poet. Henry David Thoreau, the naturalist, said "Moose. Indian." right before he died, and just before that, when asked if he had made his peace with God, he replied, "I didn't know that we had quarreled."
Oh, wouldn't it be wonderful to leave behind such a wonderfully clever remark on our own deathbeds? Oscar Wilde said, "Either that wallpaper goes, or I do." So in character. Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet who was had a special fondness for women, drink and poetry, reportedly boasted, "I've had 18 straight whiskies . . . I think that's the record" and died soon thereafter.
What's nice about these utterances is not just that they were made, but that others were present to hear these famous last words. Most often nowadays, death occurs in hospital or nursing home, or perhaps suddenly and in silence, and we are not there to hear the final words or to respond to them.
One of the most rewarding parts of being your minister, though, is that I have often been present to say goodbye to our church beloveds, and when I do so, I bring your love with me. To put this plainly, you have been present at more deathbeds than you may have thought.
What do you say when someone is dying? How do you say goodbye?
When I first started visiting people at the end of their lives, I was still a student in divinity school. I was in what we call Clinical Pastoral Education -- also known as CPE -- where seminarians are put to work as chaplains in a hospital setting or somewhere else where human loss and crisis is prevalent and we can learn pastoral counseling skills by doing the work -- while under careful supervision. I chose to do my CPE with the Merrimack Valley Hospice up in Andover, which was a home-care hospice. So I had two layers of fear and insecurity: first of all, I would be expected to minister to the terminally ill and dying. Second, I would be going to people's homes to do it.
My supervisor gave me a case load, I attended a team meeting with the doctors, nurses, home health aids, social worker and supervising chaplain to review the cases before I went on my first visits.
Those first visits were as uncomfortable and intimidating as you can imagine they were. Because what do you say? This is a question that keeps even friends and family members from visiting the dying so nervous are they about saying the wrong thing, or sitting in awkward silence. How much worse when you've never met the person and are making their acquaintance during this most challenging life transition!
But the people I visited were so kind to me. They always welcomed me and started a little conversation, physically weak as they were. They helped me feel less self-conscious. The generosity of this still amazes me: just think about being sensitive to the feelings of some twenty-eight year old kid in training to be a minister while you're dying. I remember them all with tremendous gratitude and affection.
My training was nine weeks long, and our supervisors emphasized the importance of reaching appropriate closure before we had our final meeting with our patients. In other words, we were supposed to say goodbye in some way.
And I couldn't do it.
I could not do it.
With every patient, I said that this was my last visit for my internship, told them that I would miss them and how much I appreciated knowing them. That should have been it. But with each patient, I subsequently cracked and said, "But I'll try to see you again" -- because I really believed that I would, even as I knew I was kidding myself. When I handed in my paperwork, my service to the hospice was over. I wouldn't even have access to their addresses any more.
I knew that. It's just that I had this unreasonable, frantic thought that if I kept visiting these sweet people, they wouldn't die. Maybe I could become a friend and visit them, with no official role as hospice chaplain?
I was grasping at straws.
This is a serious failure for which I have never forgiven myself, and I just hope that these lovely men and women forgave me; that they knew that I simply could not say goodbye. I got an "F" in goodbye. I gave myself an F. My supervisor at the hospice was very gentle in her admonishment to me. She said, "This is something that you're going to have to learn how to do." My other supervisor, a nun at Suffolk University, was tougher. "We can't lie to people to spare their feelings, or ours." She was right.
But I've learned since then, and I'd like to share with you my thoughts on how to say a good goodbye.
I think the first thing you can do is think about what you might do to help your friend or family member have a good goodbye of their own. Ask them. Is there anything they want to do, see, or get off their chests before they die? Is there a visit they'd like to have from someone? Try to arrange it, if it's not meddling to do so. Would they breathe easier knowing that some detail of their financial or domestic life is being tended to? Offer your help, or offer to find someone who can help them sort out their affairs. When someone knows that he or she is dying, it is like planning for the biggest trip of their life: they often feel overwhelmed by details even as their bodies become increasingly unable to tend to those details. Help out if you can.
How to say this…
Death is natural. It is not to be feared! Of course I didn't always know this. When I first began visiting hospice patients, I would walk up to the door with my heart pounding, full of a sense of dread because someone in that house was dying. As though death is some exotic, terrible fate reserved for only the very unlucky. All that drama over something so natural.
Death is not exotic. It's always hard to see people we love start that transition to death, and especially sorrowful to see them suffer, but death is coming to every one of us and there's no need to dread being in its presence.
When you get to the house or the hospital where someone is dying, know that you are welcome. Knock on the door. Let yourself in if the door is open and you are expected. Calm the dog. Take the dog out for a potty break if you can find a leash this may be something that no one has had a chance to do for awhile. Tidy up the kitchen. Make a cup of tea. Plump some of the pillows in the living room, shake out the fleece throws. Chat with the family members who are there. It's all normal life, remember.
Before you step into the room where your friend is, make sure a nurse or caregiver isn't in the midst of attending to their private needs. Say "Hi, I'm here!" Don't be afraid. Pull up a chair and sit down. Lean forward and speak clearly but don't shout. Make sure your friend can see your face, and smile. A smile communicates so much love, and is so comforting. Hold their hand. Ask if they need anything. Sing songs they like. If there is a little sponge next to the bed, swab their dry lips. Get them a fresh glass of water, or some ice if they'd like it. Don't feel the need to talk too much. Say something like, "I just wanted to see you. I'm glad to see you." That's truly as deep or profound as you need to get.
If it is the last time you're likely to see someone, tell them you love them. Tell them what they've meant to you. Even if they're unconscious, they may hear you. Smooth their hair, don't be afraid to touch them unless there's a medical reason not to. Tuck them in a little more comfortably. If they're exposed, gently pull a sheet up for them; they'll appreciate it.
If it turns out not to be the last time you see your friend or family member, you can say the same things the next time you see them. That's perfectly fine. There is no way to predict with perfect accuracy how long someone has left.
Take some tissues. It's okay to cry. If you really start sobbing, put your head down and just let loose. Just say, "I'm so sad," and let it out. Excuse yourself if you need to and say you'll be right back.
Sometimes people hold in their sobbing until they leave the room because they don't want their loved one to worry about them, or to feel they have to take care of them, the visitor. I think that's considerate thinking if you have that presence of mind, but we don't always have that presence of mind. There's no right or wrong way, although certainly a deathbed is no place to try to get into serious conversations about why you misunderstood each other all those years ago, or who stole whose husband, or complicated issues like that. When we visit the dying, we're there for them, not for us. I know that sounds harsh, but that's what friends and siblings and therapists and pastors are for: if you have issues to work out, work it out with one of us.
Dying is a very difficult leave-taking, and that's all there is to it. I once heard a dying woman say to her weeping husband, "Tears are cleansing, dear." People really do say amazing things on their deathbed. They really will appreciate your being there. And although it seems impossible to say, "I don't know if I'll be seeing you again, so I wanted to tell you how much you've meant to me," you can do it.
When I bring the blessing of the Church to our members or to people in the community who ask for it, I give them a three-fold blessing. The first is for gratitude for their lives, the second is for the release of cares and burdens and the third is for peaceful passing. When you say goodbye, you can always use this formula yourself. (1) Thank you for sharing your life with me, (2) be assured that I will take care of whatever it is I promised to take care of, (3) be at peace. I will always remember you. I love you.
A good goodbye is one of life's most beautiful encounters. And after death has closed the eyes of the ones we love, you know what happens? We say hello again. We welcome them into our lives as ancestor spirits or "those of blessed memory," and we continue the relationship. They may have spoken their last words, but it is by no means the end of the conversation, or of the relationship.