A note from Karen: When Ginger Jurries and I wrote The Compassionate Congregation, we secured permission to reprint this passage from the book Death and the Life After by Reverend Billy Graham. I return to the wise words again and again to help me remember how to care for those who are facing a terminal illness.
Margaret Vermeer served as a missionary in Nigeria. When she was seven months pregnant, she received the report that a biopsy of a small tumor was malignant. Five weeks after the surgery to remove the tumors, she gave birth to a son, and then began chemotherapy and radiation treatments. For two years she had a miraculous remission, but then gradually more tumors appeared. As her condition grew increasingly serious, she became more sensitive about the way people viewed her. Six months before she died, she was speaking before women’s church groups, sharing her insights on how to care for others as she wanted to be cared for. Here are some of her thoughts:
Be honest in sharing your feelings. Don’t bounce into the room with false cheerfulness, but admit your helplessness and concern. “I would like to help you, but I don’t know how,” is a straightforward expression of concern. Don’t play games and be evasive. Even children can cope better when people talk to them honestly.
Don’t preach out a well-thought-out sermon. Christians who bring out their Bibles and read lengthy passages are not being sensitive. To share a verse that means something to you may be helpful. When you quote a Bible verse to comfort a person, be sure you know what the verse means. When Margaret Vermeer knew that she only had a short time to live, she said that she was told by her Christian friends to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Look at that verse carefully. It doesn’t say give thanks for everything, it says to give thanks in everything. There is a vast difference. When we are told that “God causes everything to work together for good,” it doesn’t mean that all things are good in themselves, but that God is making them work out for good.
Be a good listener. People will tell you what they are ready to talk about. Sickness can be a very lonely journey. When Jesus was agonizing in the Garden of Gethsemane He didn’t want to face death alone. He asked the disciples to wait and pray with Him, but they fell asleep. What good were they?
Treat a dying person as a human being. Sometimes we treat a dying person in such a way that we make it harder on that person emotionally. We shut the people up in hospitals, whisper behind their backs, and deprive them of all the things that had made their lives rich. Familiar things are important.
Always have hope. God is greater than the situations we face. Sometimes it’s hard to find that which is positive and hopeful, but there is always something to be thankful for. Help the patient look forward to something . . . a visit from someone special . . . a time when you will be returning.
Reprinted from Death and the Life After, Billy Graham, 1987, W Publishing Group, Nashville, TN. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
This is Karen writing now: Such wise advice from Margaret!
Here are additional suggestions from me on what to say or do when you are talking with a terminally ill person:
Be honest and real. I remember reading this advice from pastor and author Chuck Swindoll: “Admit your honest feelings. If the news stunned you, say so. If you don’t know what to say, say just that. If you suddenly feel tears coming, cry. If you are overwhelmed with pity and compassion, admit it. When you allow your true feelings to show, you give me permission to also ‘let go’ and express my honest feelings.”
If you want to share Scripture, ask first. When sharing a verse which has been helpful to you, preface it with, “When I suffered, the following verse helped me. Perhaps it will be helpful to you also.”
Helpful phrases that show you care. Some comments which may encourage the suffering person to share his or her feelings are:
*For additional wisdom: see pages 152-155 in The Compassionate Congregation.