Being Educated in Life and Death

I was way too tired last night to post about the day, so here’s for Wednesday. I don’t remember if I’ve mentioned it here or not but I’ve been meeting with a woman in hospice for the past few months. I met her back in the summer when she came to visit me in my office. She doesn’t attend our meeting but has a connection to us because she is a part of a one of the groups that uses our building regularly. I was not able to visit her last week because of being really busy with preparations for the memorial service so I was eager to go and see how she was doing yesterday. I never thought that when I came to Camas Friends 8 months ago I would be working with end of life issues so soon. And so part of my pastoral education these last few months has been around death.

I recently called up another pastor in our Yearly Meeting to get some advice on working with people facing death. He gave me solid advice. He said there’s no reason to need to feel like an expert as a pastor when dealing with death. Much of our problems come when we pretend to have it all worked out. In fact, it’s better just to be upfront about the fact that I’m not and expert and invite people into processing this out loud with me. Last week I found myself saying, “I’m not an expert with this. This is only my second memorial service ever and I really am still just learning about all this.” I think the family appreciated my honesty and were really helpful in telling me how they wanted things and what they hoped for.

Another thing I was dealing with was that I don’t really want to go in with an agenda or try to impose this or that thing on people lying in a hospice bed. My friend the pastor responded back that it is okay to let them set the agenda. Ask them if they have something they want to talk about. Do they have any questions, etc? This was helpful because I was having a hard time seeing how I could transition from chit-chat and family talk to deeper issues in a way that was natural. So yesterday I followed this advice. I said, “Sandy, are there any questions or things you’d like to talk about with me while I’m here?” And sure enough there were. By opening up space to allow for her to feel free to talk about what she wanted if she wanted too that took the pressure off me feeling like I needed to “say something spiritual.” This really made the process feel more natural to me, and we had a really good conversation that was applicable to her needs. We discussed being afraid, heaven, reconciliation, her grand kids, and more. As the conversation continued I asked her, “Do you feel at peace with yourself, with God and with others?” This opened up more conversation. After we were done talking I asked her if I could Psalm 23 to her, and after that I prayed, hugged her goodbye, and let for my next appointment.

*Names have been changed (to protect the innocent).

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Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.