As a hospice nurse, there were patients and families that I always remembered long after they passed. I always worked per diem, so I didn’t usually see patients more than once. One patient in particular really affected me when I first started working as a hospice nurse. I had only been trained for about four months when I started working in the evenings as an admission nurse. There were several reasons we admitted patients after hours: sometimes patients had family members who couldn’t be there except in the evenings. Many times, these were last minute calls that day, and they really needed hospice right now. This was one of those cases.
Her life seemed perfect. She was about 39 years old, lived in a very nice house, and was model-beautiful. She had a very nice husband and three little boys, and the youngest was about two years old. But she was dying. She had an aggressive cancer called cholangiocarcinoma, which starts in the bile ducts. When I got her diagnosis from the office, I didn’t even know what it was. I had to look it up. She was being discharged from a well-known hospital after having undergone a procedure to keep her bile ducts open and the bile moving, but it didn’t work. She developed an infection. There was too much cancer, and her liver was obviously failing. She was jaundiced, vomiting, confused, and had ascites (fluid building up in the abdomen). She was so confused she thought she was pregnant.
One of the things that struck me is that she spent fifteen months on chemotherapy continuously, but she never talked with her family about the possibility she would die. She probably never anticipated that she might die while not being lucid for some time before that. She was a strong Christian, and so was her family, but her mother and father didn’t want to talk about dying. They wanted her to live–they wanted a miracle. I wanted her to live too, but unfortunately, I’ve never seen that happen. Yet they needed our help, and she was admitted to hospice.
I think the reason that she has stayed with me is not because we had much meaningful interaction; I did the difficult tasks of getting her set up as best I could for the night (not always easy after hours). I had another nurse coming with her medicine, and her regular nurse and a nurse practitioner would see her the next day. But I think it was because I saw myself in her–mostly the age, not the beauty! 🙂
At some point as a hospice nurse, I had to face my own mortality. For awhile, I had dreams that I was the one dying (sometimes they were closer to nightmares). Sometimes I dreamed it was someone close to me who was dying. And then after awhile, it all went away.
It wasn’t anything that I did to deal with it. I think it was God working on me. We had a pastor who would talk quite frequently about Jesus’ view of death. In the Gospels, Jesus calls death “sleep.” He makes it clear that He has authority over death, so that calling someone awake from death is no more difficult to Him than waking someone up from a deep sleep. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is especially poignant now, in a very practical way. Jesus rose and, through that, defeated death for all of us. Death is not permanent–life is. As Gandalf says in Return of the King, “death is just another path, one we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass… And then you see it…White shores… and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.” Heaven.
In C.S. Lewis’ last book of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle, Narnia passes away and the Pevensies and the rest of the children are all in heaven at the end. Aslan is there, with loving and kind eyes. He ushers them in and leads them on to show them his true country, the one that Narnia was only an echo of. And the unicorn neighed and cried, “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this…Come further up, come further in!” And they ran and ran without getting tired.
I don’t fear death now. I see echoes of heaven all around me. I see the echoes most distinctly at church. The Lord’s Supper, the communion of the saints, the fellowship of those who are not related by blood but by something much more important. I see it in the things that bring me joy–my kids, the love between a husband and wife, the innocence and loyalty of a dog. I see it in the beauty of creation in my favorite wild places of the world. I see the echoes of heaven in the love expressed and tears shed for a member of our church who recently died. I see it in the work of the pro-life movement: the work of people who value all life, no matter how small, no matter how disfigured, old, or diseased. I see echoes of heaven in love, and I imagine that someday we will be almost overwhelmed with it, when we go to heaven and meet our Aslan.
There’s nothing wrong with you if you do fear death, and I can’t say with any certainty that when I am truly faced with my own death, I won’t feel a bit of fear. But keep your eyes fixed on Aslan, on the light instead of the darkness. He will see us through to the other side.