I am a hospice volunteer and as such sometimes sit with those on the trailing edge of life. Some are conscious during the time I am with them, while a few have already settled into a sleep from which they will never return—at least not in this world. Whether they know it or not, most have taught me something during the time I’ve been with them, even those who are days or hours away from their last breath. Edna*, for example.
Edna was a farm girl from Saginaw. Earlier in life, she had run a farm implement business with her brothers. They did the selling and Edna handled the back office. Edna never married but did have numerous nephews and nieces with whom she was close both physically and emotionally. When I met Edna, she was in her late 80’s and under hospice care. She was bedridden and living, at least in some part, in a fantasy world, where she still went to church every day and her brothers were still alive. It was also a world in which her being in bed was not a problem or even an inconvenience. Being bedridden was not something she even mentioned to me during our six weeks together in the late summer and early fall of 2013.
I would visit her for about an hour a week. I had told Edna I was a friend of her favorite niece and she accepted that fact. Sometimes we’d sit and talk and she’d tell me about growing up in Saginaw, sometimes I’d read to her from her Bible, and other times we’d just sit together and listen to hymns playing from the Bose stereo on her windowsill.
The hymns were always playing. Edna loved traditional Christmas music. She had told me she sang in the church choir alongside her brothers while growing up. Her father had been the choir director. She said she had a fine alto voice but I never did get a chance to hear her sing.
Even when Edna had slipped into a coma, the hymns continued to play and if the CD ended while I was there, I’d put in another. And then I’d sit with Edna and just listen. Whether Edna could hear the music, I don’t know. She didn’t give any indication that she did. I do know she was relaxed and calm during those last days, although the staff made sure she was medicated for pain.
In those final days her breathing was irregular and sometimes she’d stop breathing for a while and just about the time you thought it was over, she’d draw a big breath and resume. For someone who seemed to welcome a trip to Heaven, Edna took her time leaving. She was in a coma nearly a week, but during the couple of hours I was with her that week, I learned a few things:
1) Death need not to be feared: For a women like Edna–for any of us really who serve a risen Christ—it’s comforting knowing a better place awaits. (That’s not to say, death is always welcomed, especially when it comes for those who are young and/or loved.)
2) Death is never far off: As I sat with Edna listening to the music, watching the sun stream through the window and the trees in the patio area beyond putting on their fall colors, I felt death was in that room with me. Whether it was an invisible wall, portal or passage through which Edna would soon pass or a presence, I don’t know, but whatever death is, death was in that room with us. I sensed it, although I didn’t see it. That presence wasn’t the least bit scary or disconcerting. I don’t know about other situations, but in this particular one, death was a welcoming presence since all knew this was Edna’s time to die and peace and a better place awaited.
3) When we die, we don’t have to journey alone: If we are saved, the Holy Spirit that dwelled within us accompanies us when death claims us and the body is no longer our home.
4) Traditional hymns are the way to go when it’s time to go: Now, I love contemporary Christian music. For the most part, I find the words and tunes of modern Christian music moves me in a way most—but not all–older hymns cannot (I think it’s all those “thys” and “thous” that turn me off). However, there was something inspiring about sitting in that room with Edna, the sun streaming in the window and a traditional hymn, like “How Great Thou Art” with organ and large choir filling the room with sound that seemed to fit the situation. Not sure a more modern song would have worked as well. (Note: Once I pass, though, forget traditional. For my funeral, I’d like to have “Friends” by Michael W. Smith, and “Grace Like Rain” by Todd Agnew.)
Edna is gone now and I know she has joined her brothers singing in some heavenly choir. However, the lessons I learned during my time with her remain. I just hope I remember them and take them with me when it’s my time to go, whether that time is sooner or later.
* Not her real name.