Becoming a Witness to Death: Testimonies of Love

This homily was first shared on 12/17/23 at “Theopoetics,” an open-mic night hosted by myself and the young adults of First Congregational Church Amherst. Due to the event falling between between Valentines day and Ash Wednesday, I thought I would reflect on death and love during my time as a hospital chaplain.

Content warning: this homily includes stories of death and suicide.

I have become a witness to death, and there are no answers here.

I am standing at the hospital with a family as they prepare to make end-of-life decisions. As a hospital chaplain, I seldom know exactly what I am walking into when I receive a call, but when the pager says that a family decided on “comfort measures only (CMO),” I am certain it’s going to be a sad evening. 

I walk into the room, and immediately receive an anxious response from a young man, the oldest of his siblings: “I have a theological question for you, does God believe we are taking life when we make this decision, because…. well…you know…. we are ending life-giving care?” 

This child of a dying man is on the brink of tears.  There is love in his eyes, but his very being is wrapped in anxiety – an uncertainty of the right path forward and a fear filled awareness of every decision’s risk. Through his question he is searching for the courage to be, the courage to love.

What does it mean to love someone till the end? 
What does it mean to love someone at the end? 

The love of this young man tells him that his father is ready to rest, but he is asking me “does God know that love sometimes means deciding to die? In my love am I sinning? Does God permit me to love faithfully?”  

 I want to give this young man a clear and comforting answer that settles all his fears… But, that is not how any of this works.

As a chaplain I am not there to offer textbook answers that are creedally correct, socially satisfying, or theoretically constructive. In fact, to pretend to be such an expert before the brilliance of finitude simply exposes one’s discomfort before that blinding light. I am not there to be the expert with the answers, and the truth is I don’t have any, nor the time to consider them. No. It’s too late. I am already there in the room. No theology books in hand, and I even forgot my Bible. I am just present. “In the boat,” as my chaplain instructor says. I am there in the storm before this Almighty question: What is our responsibility to death?” And Death is demanding a response.

I stutter… I fumble my words… I start sentences that fail. I take a moment of silence before another anxious attempt. 

“I… I….  I… don’t… I don’t. I don’t think God would be… be mad at you. I do not think God sees it as you ‘taking a life’ for making this decision. I have to believe God is greater than that.  But also, I can’t stand before God for you. What I do know, is that you are making an incredibly courageous decision. It is evident that that decision is permeated with love, and I know God always honors love.”

I stayed with them as the nurses pulled out the breathing tube. the man struggled to breath, as death overshadowed him – the family burst forth in grief. This was a profoundly holy moment. 

I have become a witness to death and life has been robed.

I am sitting with a mother, sitting with her son. He wades in an out of consciousness, as his mother and I talk. 

Mom tells me that he got a blood infection at the medical living facility where he has lived for the past 20 years. An attempted suicide while a teenager impaired his abilities and left him with a permanent need for a breathing tube and constant medical care. 

I look at his face, he is an attractive man.
I asked mom, “what supports you in life?” 

I think it is easy, natural even, to reflect on those things that bring us life – that help us carry on: a loving glance from a partner; the laughter of friends; the sharing of a delicious meal with another; the joy of creativity; the fun of play; the passion of intimacy. 

But even as I ask of her sources for life, I wonder to myself, “what robs us of life?” Who or what is the thief among us? 

My pager goes off. BEEEEEEEP! BEEEEEEEP! 
I have to go. A man is dying and the family wants prayer. As I walk across the hospital I continue to reflect on the thief among us. 

It is well known that suicide is often strongly related to mental illness rather than the personal resolve of individuals, but as a society, a culture, a community – we have yet to contend with the research showing that mental illness is often exacerbated by our social order – an illness definitely, but also a wound.  We too are implicated. I too participate in a commodity culture, a society of excessive production, a system that advocates for debt only to subjugate the indebted. I too am addicted to the algorithms that cause youth to question their beauty, that profit off of political divisions, that socialize me into an echo chamber. I can go on, but I think you understand that there are no easy answers here.

I arrive at the room, but the family is gone. I expected to find an elderly gentleman dying after a life well lived. No, he is younger than myself.  He is unconscious, with The Avengers on the television. As I see a red mark across his neck it occurs to me, “I was briefed on this patient.” It was an attempted suicide, and this – his fourth attempt – seems like it is going to take. They were able to get to him before his body gave up, but it was too late. His mind is gone; the damage is irreversible. Our machines were just keeping his body alive. 

What has robbed this man of life?

I see tattoos marked all across his body seemingly symbolizing the Spirit of life that he longed to remain with him. Maybe he got these with his friends, those in whom he found the joy to press on. Or, maybe it was the pain in receiving these marks that let him know that he was alive – that he survived despite the scars. I trust that these symbols were meaningful to him, just as the cross is meaningful to myself, but the power of any symbol is its participation in something greater. Something like Love, Hope, Faith. Those things that are glimpsed in those holy moments of life – the knowing glance of a friend, the touch of a lover, the embrace of a parent, an experience with the divine. 

His breathing is incredibly heavy. A sign that that the staff has removed the breathing tube as they await his spirit’s exhaustion. We are crucifying the minds of our youth, and many are giving up the ghost. 

Albert Camus writes in The Myth of Sisyphus: “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.  Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.” 

But why must the question of life’s worthiness only be the philosopher’s task? To those like myself who profess that Christ offers life and life abundantly, is the burden of proof not also upon us to demonstrate that that life is worth receiving, living, loving? No, we are too concerned with metaphysics, dogma, and looking-the-part to tend to the joy of our youth. 

I prayed that this young man would pass peacefully into the arms of God.

My colleague, Ken, became a witness to death, but on this day he testified of Love. 

Ken had been following a patent, for nearly a month. Let’s call him Shawn.  Shawn’s condition was so serious we were all briefed on it. A tree had fallen on him, and thus he arrived at the hospital. He had some broken bones but seemed to be making a full recover. Then, one day while doing therapy at the hospital, he collapsed – cardiac arrest. CPR for 30 minutes before his heart started again, but Shawn’s heart wouldn’t last alone. They hooked him up to an ECMO machine, which kept his heart beating and lungs breathing. They then realized that he was having serve internal bleeding, and his blood wouldn’t clot. Usually a bad combination with ECMO, the only immediate solution was to give him constant blood transfusions, but the blood bank was running low. 

They need to do emergency surgery, but if Shawn’s blood wouldn’t clot he would surly die. Ken met the family, but also talked with the doctors. One surgeon said to Shawn’s family, “he’s got a 50/50 chance with surgery.” Another surgeon pulled Ken aside to say, “the other surgeon is lying, he is offering false hope. The situation is dire, I would say he has less than a 1% chance to live. Ken, I am not exaggerating, he is the sickest person in western Massachusetts. He is on maximal life support.”

I didn’t hear about Shawn again until Ken gave us an update a couple weeks later:

“Do you all remember Shawn? He was very nearly dead. They did emergency surgery and miraculously, he pushed through. I was able to see him yesterday. He was conscious, and was even siting in a chair. He was animated and talked with his hands. He was glowing. You would have never thought that a couple weeks before he stood at death’s door. I asked him, ‘Shawn, it has been a month since the tree fell and you very nearly died, what are you taking away from this experience?’ He said, ‘I received so much love and care from the medical staff, chaplains like yourself, and my family who stayed with me through it. While recovering I have been watching the television, and I don’t know how I didn’t see it before. There is so much hate, division, and anger in our world, our society, our communities. What a tragedy! So many filled with life choose to spread hate, division, and violence. Ken, you asked what I am taking away from this? I am dedicating myself to be a teacher of love. I don’t know if I will make a big difference with what’s left of my life, but if I can touch one person with love, if I can inspire hope in another, If I can give someone the faith to carry on,  it would be worth it.  Loving one another – that’s my take away.’” 

In 1st Corinthians 13 the apostle Paul writes: “Three things will remain: Faith, Hope, and Love, but the greatest of these is Love.” Friends, as witnesses of life and death, may we testify of Love’s perseverance. 

Let it be. 

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