by Reverend Beverly Zell
Can you invite or allow a loved one who is dying to talk about their death?
She struggled with congestive heart failure months before it took her life. She was sustained by a loving family and an inner spark that ignited her will to live. But as the end drew near, her hospital stays grew longer and more frequent.
During one of my pastoral visits, we talked about how tired she felt. “I’m dying little by little,” she said. “But I can’t talk to anyone about it, especially my children. Every time I bring it up, they dismiss me,” she continued. “Oh, Mom, you’ll beat this thing. Don’t talk like that,” they tell me. “There is so much I want to say, but they can’t hear me.”
“Would it help if I speak to them?” I offered. “It might,” she said. “I would be so grateful if you could try.” The next day I called her eldest son and asked if we could meet to talk about their Mother. I suspected they knew she was dying, but were afraid of the conversation.
We began our gathering by talking about how they were doing. They quickly confirmed my suspicions—they knew she was dying. “It’s painful to talk about,” they explained through tear-filled eyes. “Yet in some strange way, it helps too.”
“What about your mom?” I asked. “Do you think she needs to talk about it too?” They acknowledged she had tried, but they were so uncomfortable discussing it with her they all but fled the room. They feared the finality of a conversation in which the truth was acknowledged. It was as if there was no going back once it occurred. And they worried about what to say.
While their concerns were legitimate, their inability to rise above them, to be vulnerable to whatever was to come, hindered the possibility of a conversation that would deepen their relationship during a difficult time. “Perhaps she is inviting you to walk with her into new territory,” I replied. “Can you take it step-by-step? Listen deeply. Respond lovingly. It may be your final and most important gift to her.”
They agree to try, and we closed our time together with a prayer and a pastoral promise of support to walk with them. In the weeks to come, I watched as they stepped into the abyss they had feared. The conversation wasn’t a one-time event. Rather, it evolved over time, going deeper with each round until they said their last goodbye.
About the author: Reverend Beverly Zell is a pastor of the United Church of Christ. She lives in Holland, Michigan.