1. Mills, Deborah Stephens
  2. Flynn, Kathleen T.

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Later after my conversation with Jerry, I stood in the corner of his room and watched him breathe-so fast I could hardly count his respirations. I wondered, Why do we even try to count them when they are faster than time and time is running out?


Jerry seemed unaffected by the nurses coming and going. He wasn't asleep, though his eyes were closed. Occasionally, at the sound of movement, he opened them. But if nothing was required of him, he would rest his eyes again. Jerry's family had not yet arrived. Wondering if he was even aware I was still there, I didn't want to leave him alone.


In the obscurity of that moment, I silently sought comfort for both of us. "Dear God," I prayed, "Jerry's too sick for me to share anything with him now. Maybe he knows I'm praying for him. He has to know we care. He's almost totally out of our hands now."


"I wonder if he is frightened, during this in-between time. Lord, you know Jerry better than I ever could. You know whether or not he's ready to die. Did he ever listen to his grandfather? Does he understand what is happening? Even now your Holy Spirit could minister to him. Please help Jerry. Help him know your love, your peace."


Jerry died later that day. He finally wearied of the battle. One moment he was awake and talking occasionally; the next, he was quiet and still. After being filled with the sound of his breathing for so long, the room seemed terribly silent. Empty. Lifeless. Jerry was gone. Within a few hours, another patient would be admitted to that room.


But I would never forget Jerry. His death, five years ago, marked the beginning of a new understanding and wonder at the gentle work of God's Spirit. In my clinical practice, I've observed that patients who report having a sustaining faith in God as a major source of strength and hope, experience more peaceful deaths than those who have not been reconciled with God.


When nurses tell other people they work with cancer patients, those people respond "How depressing! How can you stand it?" Sometimes clergy say, "You must have great opportunities to minister to patients."


Cancer nursing does provide opportunities to touch lives and to minister to others. But more often than not, it seems we receive a greater blessing in working with people at such times of vulnerability. Sometimes it is depressing, as people say it must be, and sometimes it's hard to bear-like when Jerry died.


Yet even that day, when I left work, the sky never seemed so blue or the air so fresh. We take so much for granted until we are forced by someone's death to look again at what is good about life. That does not really lessen the hard parts. However, sometimes it's still difficult to know what to do or say when people are dying. Especially when we're close to them.


As people, we suffer loss when another person dies. We feel a void in our lives-whether that person was a stranger we read about in the news or one of our best friends. As nurses, we are challenged to help patients and families face death, an event for which none of us can ever be totally prepared.


In addition, as Christians, we experience joy or anguish, depending on what knowledge we have of that person's relationship with God. We can't help squirming when platitudes come flowing-sometimes out of our own mouths-about how we should respond to each other during times of loss and grief. Yet even the platitudes are understandable. As people of God, we want to respond, to lessen hurts, to help the bewildered in new and terrible experiences.


Death is a hateful thing, and the only way I can accept it is through my faith.Isaiah prophesied of God's ultimate triumph over death: "He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces" (Isaiah 25:8). With knowledge of God's victory, we can let go of our apprehensions about whether we'll say or do the right thing and be confident in our freedom to do whatever we know we must, remembering we are not alone.


In John's gospel, the Holy Spirit is called the Paraclete, which means comforter, literally one who comes alongside. The Spirit of God gives us a pattern for coming to each other's aid. We may not always know what to do or say. That's really not so important as the willingness to be available, to draw near to another at the risk of losing part of ourselves. Part of the wonderfully paradoxical nature of faith is that in losing we gain, in suffering we grow stronger, in dying we live.


The willingness to be present with and for someone else is not a casual thing. We may feel helpless, sad, and uncomfortable with a dying person. But it's not beyond our ability. We can perform this mysterious but vital ministry for others-and for ourselves.