The man dying in one of our hospital beds last month was nearly 90. He was old enough to die, but the question his family was asking when I walked into his room was whether he was ready to die.
“Hi, I’m Chaplain Norris,” I said to the octogenarian.
“A chaplain?” he asked with the lilt of delighted surprise. Then with a toothless smile he added, “Hi, Norris.”
“Hello, Sir,” I said, hinting at his naval years in the Greatest Generation.
It was the type of conversation I don’t have too often in my role as a hospital chaplain or even as a military chaplain. It was different because our patient was lucid enough to see what lay ahead while still able to acknowledge where he was now. In hospital language, he was “oriented to time and place.”
His children and friends surrounded his bed as one of them began humming a favored family hymn. Soon, the rest of his visitors took their cue and music filled the sacred space. As their lyrics spilled into the open hallway, our staff gathered for the moment we knew was coming.
Some glad morning when this life is o'er,
I'll fly away;
To a home on God's celestial shore,
I'll fly away
A slanted smile found its way through the man’s pained expressions as he made an attempt to join the chorus.
I'll fly away, Oh Glory
I'll fly away;
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
I'll fly away.
More humming. More quiet and then a request.
“Will you say a prayer, Chaplain?” asked his daughter.
The invitation to pray for a dying patient brings unspoken questions: What shall I pray? Do I pray that the patient will live a few more years? Or do I pray that his dying comes without pain?
In a clinical setting these prayerful questions are often rendered: What would the patient want? Aggressive care? Or a painless passing? His family reluctantly decided to pray for the latter.
In my prayer, I brought the words of the psalmist to reassure his family that there was no place that their dad could go without the comforting presence of God:
"Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;"
My prayer prompted a question from a family member that I hear almost weekly in the hospital — not a question really, more a confession looking for absolution.
“I feel so selfish,” they often say. “I don’t want him to die, but I know he hurts too much to stay here.”
It’s a plea I frequently answer with some reassurance. “No, that’s not selfish at all. That’s just a good indication of how much you loved him and how much he loved you.”
The real truth in the moment was that their dad had earned the privilege to die in these supportive surroundings. Committed to the woman he’d married, he’d raised his children and loved them with his last breath. He’d watched his wife die the previous year and now he was the last to go through death’s portal. He was ready to die and he expressed no regrets.
After my prayer, the man seemed to look into a place that none of us could see. Then, as his chin came to repose on his chest, he confirmed the reservation he’d heard in the song and took his final flight.
Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and author of “No Small Miracles.” He also serves as an Air National Guard chaplain and is board-certified in the Association of Professional Chaplains. You can call him at 321-549-2500, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit website thechaplain.net or write him at P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759.