How one couple found that the truth about death can bring genuine comfort both to a dying husband and to his loving wife.
Sound doctrine, great proof texts, and inspiring sermons on the hope of the resurrection! We knew them all. I had given scores of Bible studies on the great biblical view of death. My husband had preached many an inspiring sermon on the hope of the resurrection. No questioning of true doctrine for us, no shortage of proof texts
But now we faced the reality of death's cold fingers intruding into our lives, threatening the love and companionship we had enjoyed for nearly thirty years. Would the sound doctrine, the inspiring sermons, and the hope we shared see us through? Would we be able to cope with this inevitable stranger? Would our faith enable us to accept its reality? Could my husband let go and die peacefully, trusting me to Cod's care? Could I give him permission to die in peace, assuring him that I could face the future alone with courage and confidence?
As a hospital chaplain I had stood by the bedside of many a dying patient, giving comfort to grieving families. Now it was my turn to experience the awful pain of watching a loved one take his final breath, of saying that painful good-bye, of watching a warm body become cold and lifeless. Was my faith just a nice-sounding theory, or would it sustain me through this ordeal?
Thank Cod, His promises are sure. Our God is real; He lives! His Son tasted death for us, What a difference faith in Jesus makes! Do we still have sorrow? Yes. Loneliness and tears? Yes. Pain over the loss of our dearest treasures? Yes. But despair and hopelessness? No! and so He is able to walk with us through our dark valleys. Our faith is not a mere theory but a living relationship with a God, who cares, who experiences our pain with us. This God, through His risen Son, has broken the bonds of death to give us hope beyond the grave.
This does not mean that we do not feel the awful sting of death, the cruel pain of separation, the hot tears, the times of grief that overwhelm us like ocean waves even after months of healing.
It means, rather, that though we grieve, we do not sorrow "as others who have no hope" (1 Thess. 4:13).
In her book, Mourning Song, Joyce Lansdorf tells of attending a funeral where the family members came to the service drunk. She reacted with anger until she realized that they had no hope to cling to and had turned to alcohol to dull the pain.
What a difference faith in Jesus makes! Do we still have sorrow? Yes. Loneliness and tears? Yes. Pain over the loss of our dearest treasures? Yes. But despair and hopelessness? No!
We have comfort in knowing that our loved ones no longer endure the pain and heartache that make up this life. Their physical suffering and pain have ended. My husband suffered numerous kinds of agonies in his final battle with Parkinson's disease. He was unable to do anything for himself; even eating and drinking had to be done for him, artificially.
He had no control over his life. He had lost the dignity and independence that he so much valued. I am comforted in knowing that he is resting in sleep.
Recently I shared with a friend the fact that I had been going through the painful ordeal of sorting through my husband's belongings his books, papers, and favorite earthly treasures.
She commented innocently that he must be looking down from heaven chuckling at my frustration in making my tough decisions. Without a moment's hesitation I countered that I was thankful, based on my understanding of the Bible, that he was sleeping, completely unaware that I was dispensing with some of his favorite treasures, accumulated over a lifetime.
Yes, there is comfort in knowing that our loved ones are sleeping. In his book, A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis asks a pertinent question. Assuming (as he does) that those who die in Christ are conscious in heaven, why should the separation of two lovers, he asks, be less painful to the one taken than to the one left?
Our loving Father does not take his precious people to heaven immediately at death. If He did so, instead of experiencing the joys of eternity, they would suffer both the sorrows of separation from their loved ones here and the torment of seeing their loved ones in grief, want, sickness, and pain..
No, God's way is best. He allows His dear ones to rest in sleep until a Better Day comes.
I am comforted by the hope of seeing my husband again. Often I stand by his grave, my eyes blinded with tears but my mind picturing what it will be like to see him again, restored to his youthful health and vigor. No wonder the apostle Paul concludes his discussion of the resurrection morning with the admonition, "Wherefore comfort one another with these words" (1 Thess. 4:18).
Comfort! This is the difference between those who hope and those who despair. We have comfort in knowing that our loved ones rest in peace, comfort in knowing that their suffering and pain have ended, comfort in the promise that in their next moment of consciousness they will look into the face of their Savior.
Because of God's reassuring promises, we and our loved ones may face the realities of death without terror or fear. We can be open and honest in discussing our feelings about death.
Kenneth and I had talked freely about these things through the years. As his illness advanced, he prepared a living will which expressed in writing his preferences about measures to be taken to keep him alive. But during the last weeks of his illness we still had difficult decisions to face. I talked with my husband about the seriousness of his illness and that he was being kept alive only by the feeding tube. Technology could keep him in this living-dying state for a long time, but would this be right or fair to him? Could I keep him suffering and prolong the dying process for the sake of my own feelings?
Difficult as it was, I asked my husband if he wanted this artificial feeding to continue indefinitely. Though he could no longer speak, he shook his head in a vigorous negative.
I spoke with him about death, about the blessing of sleeping in peace after all the suffering he had endured, and about our hope of seeing one another again at the coming of Jesus. He could not reply verbally, but his nods and his eyes spoke eloquently of his hope and his confidence.
One day, after the feeding tube had been disconnected, one of the nurses asked me if I had given him permission to die. The question startled me. Though as a chaplain I was aware that this could be helpful and even important, I needed to be reminded.
So I gave him permission to die. I assured him that it was alright for him to go to sleep and rest from his suffering that I would be alright, for the Lord would take care of me.
Death: enemy or friend?
My experience has brought home to me more personally than ever before this pertinent question: Is death (that is, the first death, not the second) always an enemy, or can it sometimes be a friend?
Scripture portrays death predominantly as an enemy. Especially among the Psalms we find many prayers for deliverance from death. And the New Testament writers dwell on the resurrection of Christ as the guarantee that death's power over the human family has been broken. Death itself now is doomed to die. (See 1 Cor. 15:51-57; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; Rev. 20:13, 14).
However, Scripture offers another view of death, perhaps not as evident, which also needs consideration. In Ecclesiastes 3:1-3, the wise man declares that for everything there is a time, "A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up." In the famous Shepherd's Psalm, David declares that he will "fear no evil," even when he walks through "the valley of the shadow of death" (Ps. 23:4).
In Psalm 55:4-6, after describing his painful response to the terrors of death, the psalmist prays for deliverance, not from death, but by death: "O, that I had wings like a dove! For then I would flyaway and be at rest."
Blessing of death
Both Old and New Testament writers acknowledge that death may actually be a blessing for those who trust in God.
"Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints" (Ps. 116:15).
After describing end-time troubles, John the Revelator hears a voice from heaven pronouncing a benediction: "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them" (Rev. 14:13).
The same Paul who calls death an enemy admits that his preference would really be "to depart and be with Christ" but that he is willing to stay on in this world since his services are needed (Phil. 1:23, 24). He said, "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (v. 21).
Paul was not confused about the sleep of death (see 1 Cor. 15:51), but he was aware that this sleep would seem but a moment before He would see His Lord. So for him death was not something to be feared and dreaded but was a brief moment before entering eternal life in the Kingdom.
When the time arrived for his death, this great warrior could say confidently, "For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing" (2 Tim. 4:6-8).
John echoes the same thought as he repeats the words of Jesus Himself to the church in Smyrna:
"Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer ... be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life" (Rev. 2:10). The death of Cod's faithful is the last thing they are aware of before they receive immortality at Jesus' coming.
Death certainly is an enemy, but because our Savior has broken the bonds of death, because He lives, we need no longer fear it. We may at times see it as a blessed release from the sufferings of this life.
We may face the grave as only a sleep, not with the hopeless despair of a final end with total nonexistence. We need not be confused, as many are, with mysticism and uncertainty about what lies beyond the moment of death.
The certainty of our hope in Christ will enable us to face death with confidence. It will enable us to give our loved ones permission to go to sleep in Jesus. It will give us courage to make the hard decisions so painful to us but in the best interest of a suffering, dying loved one. And finally, it will sustain us in our sorrow.
"To the believer, death is but a small matter. Christ speaks of it as if it were of little moment. To the Christian, death is but a sleep, a moment of silence and darkness. The same power that raised Christ from the dead will raise His church, and glorify it with Him" (The Desire of Ages, p. 787).
"Behold, I shew you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality."
"Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" (1 Cor. 15:54-55).
"And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away" (Rev. 21:4).
"Wherefore comfort one another with these words" (1 Thess. 4:18).
Rosalie Haffner Lee, retired Bible worker and Hospital Chaplain. Author, Never Far From Grace.