The late William Sloane Coffin, former Senior Minister at The Riverside Church in the City of New York, preached a sermon entitled, "Alex's Death" the Sunday after his son, Alex, died in a car accident. Dr. Coffin described the wound he felt as "deep but clean." I thought I knew what he was referring to, but it was not until my mother's death two weeks ago that I truly came to understand his words.
As I had written in my last blog posting, I had signed a Do Not Resuscitate Order for my mother -- knowing it was the right thing to do since that was her wish (even though I hated signing "not to do" something). So, when her heart stopped, they did not try to resuscitate her. I am very much at peace with that decision. That has not made my grief any less, but, it is a "deep but clean" wound. I cannot imagine what it might be like for someone who has outstanding issues with their loved one who dies. I was lucky to be able to spend a lot of time with my mother prior to her death -- when she was both awake and alert and when she was comatose. I encouraged my dad to talk about their life together and to make sure that he said everything to her that he wanted her to know each time he left her bedside. He did so, so when the call came that the love of his life for the past 68 years had died during the night, the wound was deep but he has no regrets. He had visited her every day for five weeks at the rehab. He sat with her, talked with her, helped her to eat and, when she was not conscious, held her hand and talked to her. The staff at the rehab commented on how deep their love was because of his steadfast daily visits with her. I am not romanticizing his grief. It is deep and it is ever-present for him. But he has no regrets.
Nor have I. My mother and I said "I love you" whenever we talked on the phone or saw each other, so I know that she knew that I loved her dearly and I know that she loved me dearly as well. As the youngest daughter, we had our own special bond. In the last year, as her health has failed, we had talked about many things in my life that had been questions for me as I was growing up, so there are no "left undone" conversations that needed to be handled before she died.
While my dad did not want me to talk to my mother about her dying -- he was afraid that she would give up hope, and so I honored his wish -- I think that my mother knew that her time was coming to an end. She was a retired nurse and was aware of the organs in her body that were not functioning so well any more and I believe she knew that it was only a matter of time before they failed. So, I did what I would have done as a chaplain with any family member I was present with: I encouraged her to talk about her life and her disappointments as well as those things that brought her the greatest satisfaction. We laughed together, cried together and at times, just sat holding hands. One time she asked if I was praying for her, because I had my head down. I said, "No, but if I was going to pray for you, what would you want me to pray for?" She said that she wanted me to pray that she would "get out of here (the hospital) and get home," so that I could come down to Florida and spend time with her when she was not in the hospital. I said that I would pray for that, and did. She moved to a rehab and never left there, but I was able to spend time with her there. My wound is deep, but it is clean.
I am writing about this because I have been present with family members when there have been unresolved issues with a loved one who is dying. The pain of that lack of resolution is palpable. I have learned from my years of being present with other families, the importance of dealing with those issues before the person dies, if at all possible. Whether or not the person is conscious, I believe that the person dying can hear what we are saying, and so I encourage people to let their loved one know what is on their heart. Whether it is to seek forgiveness or to say "I love you" or "thank you" or whatever is on their heart, I try to help family members have those conversations. Of course, it is easier if things are said and dealt with when people are healthy and can have two-way "healing" around issues, but often, we are not willing to do that, which is unfortunate, because it makes that final conversation, when one is possible, much, much harder.
Healing can happen at the bedside of someone who is dying -- the definition of healing is different, though. There can be healing of relationships, forgiveness sought and forgiveness given, healing of old wounds and hurts, and spiritual healing. Physical healing is no longer possible -- but that doesn't mean that significant healing can't happen. When people are open to a different kind of healing, amazing things can and do happen when we least expect them -- when a loved one is dying. Then, as Dr. Coffin pointed out in his sermon in 1983, it will be possible for the wound to be deep, but clean.