Yesterday, I received word that one of my members was not expected to live through the day. The family asked if I could get down to the hospital in Bellville to be with them for a while. I told them I would get down there after a morning appointment I had scheduled.
I had seen this member the previous day in the nursing home, and she wasn't doing well. For those who read this blog regularly, this was the woman who suffered the massive stroke in July 2011. I've blogged about many of the miraculous things that had happened in her recovery, but now, she was in rapidly failing health. Her color was terrible. She hadn't eaten in the last three days. She was hardly able to open her eyes or raise her hand. I talked with her husband some, and we prayed there beside her bed.
Yesterday morning, she bottomed out. The nursing home rushed her to the hospital just a couple of blocks up the road. The only thing that had kept her alive up to this point was her pacemaker. Without it, she would have been gone. In the emergency room, they started an IV. They gave her some anti-biotics for a kidney infection diagnosed in her bloodwork. As the medicine and fluids started entering her body, she perked up.
By the time I arrived, she was responsive. She was looking around at everyone. She would answer "yes" and "no" to questions. She could acknowledge that she was in pain. She did not look like someone who was about to die. In fact, I made no bones about telling the family what I thought.
You see, I have walked with people through the end of life process a lot. I know the cycle of death. I've watched people's bodies shut down. They slip into a coma. Their breathing slowly declines until it stops. This woman wasn't in a coma. Her breathing wasn't slowing down. Instead of looking like she was getting weaker, it looked like she was getting stronger. It didn't seem possible she was dying at this moment. I thought she was dehydrated (confirmed by the fact they had to put the IV in her leg), and that the fluids would make a major difference.
Confident that she would be around for a while, I decided to get some lunch with my wife and son who had just finished dayschool. I told the family I would be back, and I added, "I just don't think she's dying. She doesn't look like it. That doesn't mean things couldn't turn on a dime, but she isn't acting like anyone I've seen go through the process of death."
I enjoyed pizza with my wife and son. They headed home. I headed back to the hospital.
I was greeted by a sobbing family. My member had died not a minute before I walked into the room. The nurse was checking her heart as I walked in.
It was quite shocking....for many of us. Unfortunately, my words had been a harbinger. Things had turned on a dime.
It had been a while since I was in the room as someone had died and I had to deal with the initial stages of grief. One generally does not do much speaking. One generally is just there--getting items for the family members: kleenex, water, whatever. One will try to help make things more accessible in the room; for instance, I helped by lowering the bed rail so her husband could hug on her and hold her one last time. Circulating around, one touches shoulders, offers hugs, and says silent prayers for God's peace in the midst of grief.
It is an extremely emotional time. Your heart is touched as you see spouses and children and grandchildren mourn. Hearing a spouse say, "Please don't leave me alone," wrenches your insides like few things can. But you know you have a job. You represent God's presence to these folks. You represent the promise of the resurrection because of the office you hold.
When the initial surge of grief passes, then the words begin. Then the processing begins. Then the planning begins. When things are tentatively set and folks know the next step, it's time to graciously leave and allow the family time together.
One final prayer, and this was accomplished. Funeral preparations have begun.