A personal reflection on working with dying patients
By Janice Firn
I work in the hospital with cancer patients and their families at the end of life. For me it is privilege and an honor to spend time with the dying. I thank God that I can do this kind of work. I experience it as both a gifting and a joy to try and give it my best. This kind of work also drives me to my knees again and again. It has made me contemplate my own death time and again. I don’t think anyone can look at death this often without having to deal with the fear of one’s own death, or the death of all those one loves. I think it is good for Christians to contemplate our “ending” from time to time and to see God’s perspective on it. I know that it helps me to engage more fully in the here and now, and to recognize the reality of God’s kingdom being “already and not yet” fully present.
People often ask “how do you do it?” I do not want to over spiritualize death – it is sad, and at times devastating. I don’t think any person’s death is quite like another’s. Some gracefully and peacefully accept their death, others “do not go gentle into that dark night.” Sometimes death brings families closer together and makes them stronger. Other times it brings out their dysfunction and brokenness. For the living, grief is often intense and difficult. There is no easy or quick way through or around grief. Death has taught me that as human beings we were not made to die. Our natural human reaction to death is to be struck by death’s “wrongness.” Death should not be. I know and believe the truth that we were made to live forever. Sin brought death into the world; death was not God’s plan. But death is here, what now?
I don’t think I could do this work without the grace of the Holy Spirit who helps me to see with spiritual eyes what God offers to those who put their hope and trust in him. I am reminded of Paul the Apostles words in 1 Corinthians 2:9-15:
“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man's spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”If one looks at death from a solely human perspective, it is horrible, hopeless, and final. When viewed with spiritual eyes, it helps us to place our hope in a merciful God who desires life and not death for us. It was out of love for the world that God sent his Son to die on the cross so that we might have everlasting life with him. Christ came to a broken and sinful world, not to condemn it, but to heal, restore, and make all things new.
My ongoing experience of death - the good, peaceful deaths and the not so peaceful deaths - is not what I expected when I started working in this field. To be present at the moment of death is, for me, to be very near heaven. The veil is especially thin; it feels as if I can almost touch heaven. It is a very spiritual experience. When I think of death I cannot help but worship God, even as I cry for those who have died. I know that God has removed the sting of death and death no longer has the final word. I can echo Paul’s words, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting (1 Corinthians 15:55)?” I am in awe of God’s work of redemption, his saving power over death, and the fact that he has conquered what we fear most – death itself.
Being near death, pain, and suffering presses me to find my strength in God’s love. He has poured his love into my heart through the gift of his Spirit (Romans 5:5) and that gives me strength to love in return. There is so much pain and ugliness in the world, so many needs that are larger than what I have to give. I do not have enough within me to meet all of the demands and concerns of those I serve. I do not have what it takes to comfort them or to change their circumstances. I am often in situations where the need is so overwhelming and I am so lacking that I feel helpless and unsure of what I can do; I want to turn and walk the other way. From a human perspective I recognize that I have little or nothing to give.
I am a beggar and only God can make up for what I lack. In my want I can say like Peter who met the lame man in the temple, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you” (Acts 3:6). I can pray for my patients that God will touch them with his healing presence. With God’s help, I can sit, listen, and be present to each patient, to witness their experience, and uphold their dignity. I can choose not to run away, but to stay, be present, and love. Christ did not shy away from pain, from ugliness, and from suffering when he embraced the cross for my sake. I know that his cross can give me strength to embrace suffering as well.
I believe that the only thing that can sustain someone in their darkest moment – even when they cannot stand to be with themselves because they feel so wretched - is love. We can fail, lose hope, and die, but love endures. It remains for ever because it is grounded in God.
Working with dying patients drives me again and again to find my strength in God. There are times when I am tempted to think that my competence, skills, and training are enough to get the job done. But when I am pushed past my natural abilities and skills, and recognize my limitations, I get a glimpse of what Paul the Apostle means when he says, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” I think it is God’s grace and mercy when I find myself at the edge of my capabilities and humility forces me to cry out to God. I know that his love is stronger than death. And I thank God for revealing his love to me and for calling me to love even when I have nothing else to give.