Sharing Hope: What saying goodbye to my mother taught me about ministry

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By Karen Massey
I have been an ordained Baptist minister for over 20 years. During that time I have had the honor and privilege of visiting with terminally ill parishioners during their final days of life, standing beside families who were burying a loved one, and officiating at the funerals of church members and strangers. All of those experiences were holy moments for me. And I tried hard to be a good pastoral presence during those times of grief by following what my seminary textbooks taught me.

Sadly, my mother died several weeks ago, and I suddenly found myself in a new role. I was no longer the consoling, compassionate pastor; I was the grieving, heartbroken daughter. My mother had suffered for eight years with a severe form of Alzheimer's called Lewy Body Syndrome. Some of the symptoms included dementia, hallucinations, difficulty swallowing, and stiffening of the joints. While my family members and I knew that one day mom would die from complications caused by her disease, her death came quite unexpectedly this summer. Mom had fallen, and she was in the hospital for what was supposed to be routine hip replacement surgery. The actual surgery did go well, but complications arose that my mother's feeble body just couldn't overcome. Shocked and grieving, my family and I found ourselves having to make end-of-life decisions that involved the removal of feeding tubes and hospice care. Then there were the long days of waiting and sitting by my mother's bedside as she readied to leave this life.

My mother's death was the first time in my life that I had experienced true, gut-wrenching grief. It was also the first time in my life that I had been the recipient of extended pastoral care from ministers.

While my mother's death was difficult to bear, there were several lessons I learned, through my personal sadness, about grief and pastoral care. It is one thing to know about grief and another to experience it. And, it is one thing to offer compassionate and sensitive pastoral care and another to follow the textbook. Sometimes grief does not follow the textbook. When I once again find myself in the role of pastor, there are some things I will do differently as a result of my own experience with grief.

Be honest and name the present reality.
Once the feeding tube was removed, my mom struggled and labored between this life and the next for six days. The doctors regularly gave her morphine, but we didn't always know if she was in pain or if she needed something. Neither did we know what she was thinking or experiencing. There would be moments when she would cry out or fight with some invisible, imaginary monster. Her breathing was loud and labored. And her body shook from bouts with fever. Most of the time, I felt helpless, and my mom's last dying days weren't very pretty.

Ministers would come by to visit, and they would offer the following words: “Your mom is going to a better place,” or “Your mom will soon be free of her suffering.” While those words were true for my mother and her future, those words didn't offer me comfort in the present moment. I would have welcomed someone naming the present reality as hard, difficult and sad. I longed to hear someone say, “This really stinks.” To hear such words would have helped me realize that someone understood my pain, and that it is necessary to go through grief in order to realize hope and healing.

Permit the person to grieve in her own way.
As one who was grieving, I found that often what I needed was not what everyone else wanted for me. Ministers would come to the hospice facility to visit mom, and then they would spend an hour or so visiting with me. They would talk about various topics, from the weather to my job to the Georgia Bulldogs, in the hopes of cheering me up. While I appreciated their intentions, what I wanted and needed more was to use the time to talk to my mother. I was constantly aware of the brevity of time during my mom's stay in hospice, and I wanted to spend as much time at her bedside as possible. I realized that in whatever time was left, I had a lifetime of gratitude to express, memories to name, and blessings to share. I wanted to honor my mother in her dying, and time with her was precious to me.

Ministers would also push me to go home at the end of each day, encouraging me to get some rest. While resting was important, what I needed more was to be with my mother when she died. I didn't want her to die alone. I wanted to be there at the end to bless my mom as she took her last breath. Just as she held me in her arms when she brought me into this world, I wanted to hold her in my arms as she left this world. These were things I needed to do in order to cope with the grief of losing her.

Ask the person what she needs.
Every time a minister or deacon came to visit my mom in hospice, he would grab me by the hand and say,” I know that some good praying is what you need, so I would like to pray for you and with you right now.” To be perfectly honest, there were many times I didn't want to pray with those ministers; I had already been praying! At other times, I didn't feel like praying; I needed something else instead. I would have liked to have spent time talking about my mom and some of the good memories I had of her. Or, I would have liked to go for a walk outside to have a change of scenery. Or, I would have liked a good cup of coffee. Or, I would simply have liked to be left alone. Depending on the circumstances of the day, my mother's condition, or my mood, my needs changed. I would have welcomed the ministers asking me what I needed and then allowing me the space to have it.

Be a supportive presence long after the funeral and burial are over.
During the time of the funeral home visitation and the day of the funeral service, I felt so much care and support from friends and ministers. Their presence was a gift. But in the days and weeks after the burial, most people had moved on; they had gone back to work, daily routines, and family life. I was still grieving. My world was changed forever with the death of my mother, and I was still trying to adjust to life without her. And I realized that grief would continue to rear its head during the next year as my family experienced the first holidays without my mom, her birthday, family reunions, and family vacation. I have heard someone say that the days and months after the funeral are often some of the most difficult and most lonely. Remembrances from ministers during those days will be comforting, and it will be a gift to know that I am not walking the road of grief alone.

During my years in elementary school and high school, my mom had two questions that she always asked me at the end of the day: What did you learn in school today? And, what did you learn in life today? My mom was a firm believer that some of the best lessons we learn come from life experiences. She was right. The experiences of my mother's death and dealing with my personal grief taught me many things that a textbook could not have taught me. One important lesson is that I should not make assumptions about what people need during times of grief; I should listen for what they need and allow space for it. As a minister who often cares for people who grieve, I will listen more and assume less.
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Dr. Karen Massey is the Associate Dean of McAfee School of Theology.