2012-08-15 - The Gates of Death
When they arrive at the gates of death, God welcomes those who love him. Psalm 116:15 MSG
Psalm 23 talks about God being with us when we walk through "the valley of the shadow of death." The words "valley," "shadow," and "death" are all pretty unpleasant sounding. They're very different than the green pastures and still waters that are talked about at the beginning of this well-known passage of Scripture. I thought about this passage yesterday, when I was reading an article about what happens to people in the hours and minutes before death. It was written by hospice and palliative care professionals. The purpose of the article was to help family members and friends know what to expect and what is considered "normal" when people are dying.
I'm not currently facing such a situation. I never have. I ran across this article unexpectedly while reading about something completely different. It was one of many articles that came up along with the piece I was reading about an entirely unrelated topic. The title caught me off guard and startled me. Just thinking about what the article might say made me feel very uncomfortable. My first impulse was to put it out of my mind and skip to something else as quickly as possible. I almost did that, but then I chose to click on the link and read about what happens to people before they die.
That may sound very morbid. Why would I do that if I'm not currently in that situation? Partly, it was because my Mom is a nurse and works with elderly people. I thought if the article was good, I might forward it to her. I also thought it might be helpful when I have clients who are going through such an experience with someone they love. With this kind of helpful information, I could reassure them about what's happening and their reactions. It was more than that, though. There were personal reasons, too. None of us knows when we might find ourselves by the bedside of a dying loved one. This is a scary prospect for me. I'm not good with sickness, medical stuff or physical suffering. If the need arose for me to be with someone going through this, I would want to be able to do so in a way that was helpful and comforting. To me, this is such a sacred and important time for the person who is dying and for their family members. It's a time when everyone involved should be showing support and love to that person and to each other. I think the more we know about what could happen, the better prepared we are to be a calm and encouraging presence in the situation. That's certainly what I would want to be. I pray God would help me be that way.
Most of us don't like thinking about death, whether its ours or someone else's. It is a reality, though. We hear about it every day. We know people grieving the loss of someone they loved. We go to funerals to support others we care about, and think about our own loved ones. Some of you reading this have been at the bedside of a loved one as they died and know how difficult it can be to watch that process unfold. Feelings can be so mixed when someone we love is suffering, but there is loss and grief that has to be faced and experienced.
When I was reading the article about what often happens to people near death, one of the things I found most interesting was that some people in the process of dying will talk about preparing for a journey or getting ready to do some traveling. I've never heard this before, but the authors said it is pretty common. They're not doing this to talk about their dying in a symbolic or metaphoric way; its more like some sort of an internal reaction the dying person is experiencing. It is as if they know a significant change will be happening soon. They sense a major transition is coming for them, even if they aren't sure what it is.
The authors suggest reassuring them that its okay for them to go on this journey or trip if they want to, and that they shouldn't worry about everyone else because the people they love will be okay. They say to agree that they will in fact be leaving soon, so that they know there is a valid reason they're feeling that way, and that those around them recognize it and understand it. They advise loved ones to tell the dying person that where they're going is a place that is safe and happy. If we believe in Heaven and feel sure the soul of our loved one is going there, that certainly makes it easier to say such things.
I've thought quite a bit about this. I can only suppose the dying person who talks about that sense of movement, or getting ready to travel, is somehow experiencing the reality that their eternal soul is preparing to depart from their temporary body. Whether or not they know they're dying, I think this may be a different knowing. Its not the knowing that the body is going to stop functioning. This is a knowing about their soul continuing. Some part of the person can feel the coming separation drawing nearer and nearer. The soul knows when its temporary home is no longer fit for habitation, and when it is time to move on to its eternal home. It becomes restless, and more and more eager to be free of the body that is shutting down and confining it. Kind of like when a butterfly is ready to bust out of its cacoon because the cacoon is too small, and it has done what it needed to do in there, in order to be ready to move on.
Maybe our souls always know the time will come, but just don't know when. I'm not sure. Maybe each soul knows when the ties binding it to the body are loosening. It is getting ready for flight, like a bird or an airplane. Physical life is ending, but the soul is simply transitioning from one home to another. This time, it is moving to its eternal home. The eternal home is a much better place for souls than physical bodies are. Bodies break down and weaken. Heaven and eternity don't.
However it works, I know God is in charge of the process. I don't think God wants us to dwell on it. In his book "Come Thirsty," Max Lucado talks about the reality of death, and how some people's lives are ruled by the fear of it. He reminds us that only God knows when each of us will die. He suggests we consciously turn the events, circumstances, and time of our death over to God. He suggests that we tell Him we trust Him with the when and the how of our souls departing from our bodies to return to Him in Heaven. We think and talk about commiting our lives, our marriages, our children, and other specific things in our lives to God - but we can do the same with our deaths. I think we can do this for those we love, too. We can trust God with their souls, and with the circumstances of their lives and deaths. Death is still mysterious and hard to understand - but the reality of God's control, and our soul's security with Him - can bring a lot of peace when we need it most.
To be continued.