Dying in the Midst of Prayer
The patient was a 65-year-old woman — one year older than my mother and father. She had been sick for quite a while, but no one expected her to die, at least not now, not here, not in the hospital. She had been on the general medicine floor for little less than a week. She came in confused, and never did shake the sense that she wasn't supposed to be there. She told me repeatedly in my visits with her that all she wanted was “to go home,” that her daughter “means well, but by forcing me to be here she is hurting me. I want to go home.” Sometimes when I would pop by to say hello she would be on the phone, tears flying down in agony, “I want to go home.”
Three days before she died I met her. I held her hand and I listened to her story. She told me about her family, how she loved them but that she was puzzled as to why they were forcing her to be in the hospital. This was her opinion. She by her own admission was out of sorts and apologized frequently. She repeated herself often, her mind simply befuddled. I would just nod, smile, and listen ever closely. She told me she loved to sing. I told her that I would come back later and sing a hymn with her. She told me she loved to read scripture. I told her I would come back later and read the Bible with her. And then I held her hand, and we prayed.
I don’t remember exactly what we prayed for. God’s presence. God’s peace. To go home. At one point, I invited the patient to pray however she would like and she got lost in her words. I simply repeated everything she said back to her, so as to pray her prayer. I don’t think she noticed. She was gone. She was caught up in the Spirit. She was afraid. But she cast her fear on God. And it was beautiful. Then I said “amen,” she thanked me, and I said I would return. And I did return.
On early Friday morning this patient had a code blue due to internal bleeding that wouldn't stop. Her family, the family who she had begged to come release her from the hospital, had arrived by that afternoon. I was on call that day, and received a page from decedent care letting me know that she was expected to die. I hustled to ICU, and met a tortured family gathered at the bedside. I introduced myself. We stood in silence. I mentioned that the patient had told me that she loved to sing. The daughter’s eyes lit up — she had a recent recording of her mother singing. She played it on her phone, holding the sound next to her mother’s ear. The song was called “Coming Home.” The song finished. I offered to pray. I began to pray. And then she died.
I wrote this brief reflection as part of my intensive Clinical Pastoral Education experience that all aspiring PC(USA) pastors are required to fulfill. One thing that CPE illustrated for me was the necessity of Christians to be truly present with those who surround them in all instances. But what happens when the completely unexpected occurs? What do we do as pastors, as theologians, as Christians? How do we continue to pray? This particular visit is one that has stuck with me. The coincidence of the woman dying as I prayed deeply spooked me, the family and the nurses as we stood around the bedside. After she died, the family cried, but the nurses and I stood in stunned silence. We knew she was dying, but her heartbeat had been steady. It truly appeared to all present that she was waiting for a prayer to set her free to cross over to Jordan. The family and the health professionals looked to me for something, anything, but honestly, I got nothing. So we all stood in silence. And marveled at how she died in the midst of a prayer.