As a pastor, death has been no stranger to me, but two experiences stand out. I watched one friend break out in a radiant smile, lift her arms as if to reach for someone and died, leaving the room filled with the most incredible "presence." Another friend's husband pointed to the ceiling. "Look. There she goes!"
I suspect we fear death because we rarely have the chance to share that final experience with the ones we love since many die in the hospital away from us rather than at home. Because we fear the unknown, we seek to prolong life regardless of the human, emotional or financial costs. In the old days the family cared for the sick, held them as they died, "laid out the body," made the casket, dug the grave. This gave the families tangible ways to say "good bye."
Thanks to Hospice, I got to share in both of my sisters' deaths. Both times, (one local and the other in Indiana), I found Hospice to be incredibly kind, supportive, helpful, and grounded. They helped us realize the difference between medical treatment which is designed to prolong life, and hospice care that is designed to keep the terminal person pain free and comfortable. Both of my sisters came home with less than 2 weeks to live. Both lived several months, with good quality, in large part due to the ways Hospice managed their pain and care. Hospice provided all of the equipment and medication. They were on call 24/7. They helped us recognize the stages of grief and impending death so we could let go and allow my sisters to die gracefully and peacefully.
In Final Gifts, a book written by Hospice nurses, the authors spoke of a conscious state that dying people often experience, an alternate reality. My one sister described it as "being in a story that's being acted out in another place" or "being caught between two worlds without knowing where I belong." At times she'd ask, "Is someone here? Who just came into the room?" I'd see no one. Once she said, "there are three people sitting at the foot of my bed." Another time, "someone standing by my left shoulder." One afternoon when she was very weak she told us, "I was going down this long hallway, but when I got to the end there wasn't a knob on the door so I came back." Hospice helped us understand that these were not hallucinations but experiences that were very real to her.
For those who can't care for their loved ones at home, hospice provides similar services in nursing homes and hospitals. As with most experiences in life, the one who helps gets as much or more out of the experience as the one who is helped.
In spite of being a pastor, I have my doubts about an afterlife. The world is very much with me. I used to watch "Touched by an Angel" and snicker, thinking it pretty far fetched that angels took the dying "home." Having shared my sisters' experiences, I now find myself wondering. What if that actually is true? What if we do entertain angels unawares?