Friday, January 24, 2020

Dying Pain Placed Into Perspective: Joy Just Ahead


My mother has just passed away following a nearly 16 year journey through Alzheimer's disease.  I offer the following account of her passing in order to share the comfort I have received.

The day before Mom died, she was so comfortable and peaceful.  She kept saying “Peace, peace, it is so beautiful.”  She repeated this in various ways throughout our visit; “It is so beautiful!  So peaceful!” 

She was not looking at me, but through me, or upwards, toward the corner of her room where wall met ceiling.  At one point she exclaimed, “Look at that beautiful face!  Just perfect!  So beautiful!” 

I made a quick check of where she was gazing to see whether the veil might have lifted for me as well, but no.  I asked, “Is it Jesus?” 

She hesitated and then answered, “I think so.” 

That she answered a direct question at that point was kind of astounding as she had not been responding to me or seeing me.   

Mom was comfortable up until her last 24 hours.  If there had not been a delay in getting her started on the 15-minute interval doses of medicine that hospice gives for dying pain, I don’t think she’d have had that hour of extreme struggle. Well, it seemed extreme to me and it may not have lasted more than a few minutes; time telescoped into a form that what seemed like hours may only have been minutes.  It was distressing to see her labored breathing, so reminiscent of someone suffering labor pains to bring forth a child. 

That thought of the similarity to what Mom was enduring to the labor of childbirth was comforting to me.  I had positioned myself beside Mom on her narrow bed and wrapped my arms around her, praying for her, so that her suffering was my suffering.  At first I thought I couldn’t bear the intensity of her anguish, but then the thought of how we all embrace labor and childbirth for the sake of the joy that follows put her suffering into perspective for me; she was heading to the joy of Jesus’ presence. 

Some time later (5 minutes?  30 minutes?) two nurses appeared to reposition her and I was so cramped and nearly frozen into position that I had to do a kind of gymnastics move to get out of the bed—both nurses thought I was falling and moved toward me to catch me.  I landed awkwardly on my feet, straightened up, gave a sheepish smile.  They quickly and professionally returned to the task at hand. 

My husband, John, was visibly shaken and gave forth the information that my father had gone through the same thing that last day of his life (while I was at my job teaching children to read, this dear man had supported my mother in helping her to see my dad through his final days of life).  

I said, “You know it’s just like laboring in childbirth, so similar to having a baby.” 

John shook his head vigorously and said, “No, no, it isn’t.” 

And I said, “Honey, you never had a baby.” 

I was illuminated by the thought that Mom did not appear to be suffering the level of pain I felt myself to have survived in order to bring my children into the world.  It was a profound shift in understanding; I had gone willingly into a second pregnancy despite the fairly traumatic suffering of my first pregnancy and childbirth experience.  Why?  Because of the surpassing joy of holding that new baby in my arms. 

I think the difference in our perceptions between laboring in childbirth and laboring to achieve separation of body from spirit is that as observers, we don’t see with human eyes the great joy at the end of the dying labor.  But we can receive it on faith.    

“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning,” (Psalm 30:5).

“ Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.  A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.  So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy” (John 16:20-22).




Thursday, January 23, 2020

Hope of Heaven and Home


My precious mom passed away today after a nearly 16 year battle with Alzheimer's disease.  The past 24 hours have been difficult, and I'm a little bit in shock.  This frozen feeling begins to thaw in the light of the Lord's love; He is guiding us through each step of this busy, preparing for the funeral, time.

I don't have anything profound to say during this solemn, sad, sometimes almost comical time except that I am grateful for the Lord's guiding presence.  I sure do appreciate Him.

Our hope of heaven sustains us and keeps us from grieving like those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

Blessed be His Name.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Dementia-related Combativeness

The background of this meme is a detail from one of my mother's oil paintings.

My poor mother is currently suffering dementia-related perceptions that she in danger.  I felt so sad and upset with her during our visit yesterday as she threatened to spit in my eye and to kick me in the backside. She responded in anger as I attempted to give her a sip of orange juice.  She flailed her fists in front of her face in an attempt to fend me off.  

My exasperated thoughts were along these lines: where is her Christian perseverance and love?  Why does she think even now it is ok to respond in such a mean way to anybody at all, much less her loyal and loving daughter?  

And then last evening, I lost my temper with someone who had done something they ought not to have done.  After the situation had been handled, the thought came, "What if your perceptions were canted so that you only thought this person had committed a wrong, but in fact, no wrongdoing had occurred?  How would your response have been different?"  

Of course the answer is that my response would not have differed at all.  We respond to our perceptions of what is true.  Mom's most recent misperception is that the sound made by the rattly congestion in her chest is the angry growling of a vicious dog.  She feels threatened, and responds with anger.  She talks about what she is going to do to that dog. She then forgets about the dog and only remembers she is  being threatened. And that is when she responds with aggression toward people around her.   

Mom is responding to a demented version of truth, and her combativeness is understandable from her perspective.  Our kind hospice workers have ordered meds that may help her congestion and ease her anxiety.  She also responds positively when I sing praise songs to her.  

It's hard to watch Mom suffering these delusions, but it is a blessing to know that her struggles are almost over.  As the physical body dies and our perceptions become increasingly compromised, there are sometimes responses that aren't pleasant to experience or for others to watch.  But I'm feeling strongly that I don't need to be overly upset about these things.  They are a part of the dying process for Mom, and are analogous to suffering through a rocky labor to bring forth a child.  At the end of this labor there will be peace, and a sweet release into new life. 

I wish it were an easier transition for my mom.  But the Lord is with us, and there are moments of peace and beauty that I wouldn't trade.  Yesterday morning the dementia fell away for a few seconds, and as I took her hand Mom looked into my eyes and said, "I love you."  For that moment she knew what was real.  And that is what I'm going to keep.  Love remains.    

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Comfort for the Dying and Those Who Love Them


Hospice care has been initiated for my mother, who is in her 16th year since her Alzheimer's diagnosis and is 95 years old.  Last week she seemed near death but she has rallied and is understandably not pleased with her circumstances.

Below you will find the insights and comforts I've gathered regarding dying in Christ.  This knowledge is helping me, but I must tell you that the most real help for me now is coming from the Lord's moment-by-moment grace, mercy, and guidance.  I don't mean to say it is a tidy process.  I'm tired and short-tempered and Mom is struggling.  But I am also aware that His grace is covering us.  Blessed be His Name.

~~~ 

Well into adulthood, I coped with immature fears regarding death. I avoided funerals when I could, and separated myself emotionally from the inevitability of eventual death for myself and for my loved ones. I don’t think these are unusual strategies, but they are unnecessary when we remember that Jesus came to free those who all their lives have been imprisoned by fear of death. The truth of what Christ has done for us liberates us from the horrifying aspects of death and brings peace.  As Jesus told the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Death is not our destination; it is only a passageway, and because of Christ, death is not a place we can become entrapped.

There is nothing of paralysis, constriction, or altered consciousness about death; the opposite is true; in God’s hands and in His perfect timing, death is a freeing process that delivers us to new life. To onlookers, death may resemble falling asleep, but it is the physical body that falls asleep in death, not the spirit. For the Christian, death does not entrap, it releases. The distorted awareness and paralysis of anesthesia, which also looks like sleep, is responsible for fears some of us have harbored, but we can release any misconception that death is like anesthesia; it is nothing like being asleep and unable to awaken. In Christ, when our physical bodies fall asleep in death, our spirits awaken to a new life.

The Valley of the Shadow is a passageway to be traversed, not a place to set up camp. God's children do not linger in the valley. In the same way that a baby being born is pushed down the birth canal and then delivered, death is only the passage between this world and the next; and the Lord is with us. Dying is sometimes as simple as stepping across a threshold, and there is no need for fear.  Those who live in Christ only pass through the cold vale of death, and enter immediately into the warmth of His eternal, perfectly protective, presence.

As a child, I harbored fears that I might somehow retain a conscious awareness of my mortal body even after death entraps the body in the grave. These fears dissipate in response to the reassurance that our physical bodies have no consciousness or awareness apart from our spirits. St. Paul clarifies the truth that we can’t be two places at once; we are either at home with Christ, or we remain in the body.

Confusion may arise because the discerning may sense something akin to an unconscious presence when in proximity to the physical body of a loved one who has departed, and in a cemetery there is a peaceful somnolence that makes us feel that something, if not someone, is still present. This sense of a presence we don’t understand can be disturbing, but in light of Scriptural truths regarding the resurrection of the physical body at Christ’s return, it makes sense that the seed of the physical body that is sown perishable but raised imperishable might have a presence—the “something but not someone” we feel in the restfulness of a graveyard—that can be sensed.

Thus our physical bodies have no consciousness, and return to dust. Remember we are created in God’s image, three in one. The spirit, mind/consciousness, and physical body are the three.  Our spirits, including our consciousness or what we think of as “independent thought”—that sentience that makes us human—go to Heaven at death. If we think it odd that we will continue to be able to experience consciousness apart from a physical brain, let us be reminded that the Almighty God Himself is spirit and not flesh.  Spirit and flesh are an odd coupling that God has engineered to work in the context of creation.  Sin corrupted the workings. Jesus died to reset the clock, so to speak, to a time when flesh and spirit were at peace with one another, undamaged by sin’s influence. Sin took body and spirit out of harmony. Jesus made a way for for harmony to be restored.

The inaccurate conviction that thought or consciousness is impossible in the absence of a physical brain has to do with one of Satan’s great victories, which is to make us believe that we are animals. This faulty belief leads to faulty conclusions. We inhabit material bodies, but we are created in God’s image. Our essence, who we are, is spirit and not flesh.  We live in these temporary bodies, but the physical bodies are not us.  We are able to be separated from our bodies with our beings intact. Yes, this is a mystery to us, but it is not a mystery to the God who created us. 

The presence of the physical bodies that will be resurrected and re-formed (remember Ezekiel’s dry bones?) on the day the trumpet sounds is what I have always sensed in graveyards; there is a quiet, peaceful sensation in a cemetery that is very much like being in a room where everyone is asleep but you.  Because of this awareness of a peaceful presence surrounding the body of someone who is no longer alive, I was once fearful over the many Scripture passages that describe death as “falling asleep.” Yes, the body “sleeps” in the grave, but the spirit goes directly to Jesus just as we’ve always been taught.  Our physical bodies retain no awareness. 

Those who love us and have gone before are members of that great cloud of witnesses described in Romans 12:1. They have departed and are at home with the Lord, and so they see Christ with unprecedented clarity. The Holy Spirit is the One who is constantly present with us and God is the One who constantly watches us, but our loved ones who have died are surely informed about us as they see us through the Lord’s eyes. Love is the strongest bond of all, and those who love us do not lose interest in us when they enter Heaven. C.S. Lewis thought our loved ones may have some special influence on behalf of those they love, especially when they first depart, and so while we know that the Lord is our source of perfect love and help, there is comfort in the truth that our loved ones love us still. Death is not stronger than love. Love remains  (find the C.S. Lewis reading at Biblegateway, here:  https://www.biblegateway.com/devotionals/cs-lewis-daily/1913/04/23)https://www.biblegateway.com/devotionals/cs-lewis-daily/1913/04/23).

One of the unfortunate ways we deal with death is to trivialize it. It is impossible to watch an evening of television without running across a murder mystery or seeing someone portrayed as dying; but real death in real life is a holy and solemn passage. The emotion death elicits is something close to awe; similar to the feeling one might experience when walking into a huge cathedral with an immensely arched celling overhead. The terror is gone because of Christ but from our perspective, something of the chill of the Valley of the Shadow remains for us as onlookers.  Our Lord is sovereign over death, but he does not dismiss our passage through death as being a trivial thing. The passage from this life to the next is precious to the Lord, and it is a blessed passage for those who believe.

Of one thing we may be certain, those who have died in Christ are not dead, but very much alive, waiting with joyous anticipation for the final resurrection at the end of all things, thrilled to participate in praise in the presence of God, joyous because suffering has, for them, been put into its proper perspective. If they see us at all, they see us in the light of God’s eternal perspective, and are full of the knowledge that our light and momentary troubles are gaining for us a greater weight of glory. Indeed, they nearly rejoice in our sufferings, because they know great reward awaits, and although they may feel compassion (God’s compassion) they do not grieve for us. They can see more clearly than we can see how sweet the reunion we will experience with them will be, but even more, knowing firsthand the all-encompassing pleasure of seeing God’s face, they thrill for us because they know that we who die in Christ also will have this pleasure.

Some of us have worried whether cremation is acceptable, or whether our physical bodies need to remain more or less intact. These are needless concerns. Our physical bodies do not remain in their present form, but will be raised, transformed. When we leave our bodies, they are empty husks until the resurrection awakens them and we are transformed into the likeness of Christ, clothed with our new, resurrected bodies, not of perishable flesh, but imperishable.  The Lord does not lose any entrusted to Him. That which is imperishable cannot be destroyed by fire.  This is a mystery we cannot comprehend, but trust in God and in the reassurances He’s given us in Scripture tells us that the manner in which the physical body is destroyed is of no consequence.  The Holy Spirit is the power that preserves the imperishable germ that will spring forth with new life at the resurrection, and the Holy Spirit cannot be compromised or influenced by anything temporal; He cannot be broached.

~~~

Scripture references:  
1 Corinthians 15:42-44
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Philippians 1:23
John 14:16
Proverbs 5:21
Song of Solomon 8:6
1 Corinthians 13:13
Psalm 116:15
2 Corinthians 4:17
John 6:39

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Just Keep Praying!


I am in the process of emerging from a nearly three year struggle with what I now understand has been depression.  I didn't recognize my trouble as depression when I was in the midst of it. All I knew was that I was suffused by grief, a sense of helplessness, and a feeling that nothing would be right again.  Nearly 16 years of accompanying my my mother through her Alzheimer's journey certainly played a part in my sorrows, but other things happened as well (they always do).

 Someone who is depressed will probably alienate loved ones because of the human tendency to blame others: "If only he/she would (or wouldn't) have done thus or so, then I wouldn't be in this situation."  When living with someone who has this attitude, we have to rest upon the commitment we have made to one another in the Lord in order to continue in prayer and compassion for them. I have done my share of casting blame and am grateful for the Lord's steadfast love, as well as for my friends and loved ones who stuck with me even when I was not supportive of them.  

The only consistent element that has emerged as being truly helpful both in my own depression and in dealing with that of others, is prayer.  Praying for someone who is not acting as they ought is not an automatic response; we are much more prone to distance ourselves from them. But God's word doesn't say to pray for others only when they are acting like they ought to act and doing what they ought to do.  The verses that end this post make it clear that we are to pray for one another even when we feel more as though we are enemies than friends with those for whom we pray.  

In the end, our most effective work is prayer.  If you are suffused by sorrows, keep crying out to the Lord.  If you are living with someone who is struggling, pray for them and don't stop.  To paraphrase Dory's line from Finding Nemo: Just keep praying, just keep praying, just keep praying!  

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 "The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms" Deuteronomy,” 33:27. 

“Prayer does not equip us for greater works— prayer is the greater work Oswald Chambers.

“Yet what is due me is in the LORD's hand, and my reward is with my God” (Isaiah 49:4). 

People of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you.  Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it” (Isaiah 30:19-21).  

 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective (James 5:16).  

Never stop praying, especially for others. Always pray by the power of the Spirit. Stay alert and keep praying for God’s people (Ephesians 6:18 CEV).  

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44).  

I include this last verse from the Contemporary English Version with a smile, because although none of us are truly innocent, we often feel ourselves to be so.  When we  have been wronged and did not deserve it, but nevertheless pray for those who have hurt us, our prayers truly can help a lot: 

"...pray for one another and be healed. The prayer of an innocent person is powerful, and it can help a lot"  James 5:16 CEV

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Protect Our Hearts, Minds, Bodies ...

The background of this meme is a detail from a painting by my mother, completed a few years prior to her Alzheimer's diagnosis.  

A friend and fellow caregiver wrote me a kind email today. She began with almost humorous but heartrendingly accurate words of empathy, and ended with a touching prayer. Here are her words of empathy and encouragement for caregivers: 

"It is my assumption that the Lord leaves the elderly and infirm with us that we may grow in mercy, grace, wisdom and basically not be giant, selfish jerks. I get it. But I DO NOT LIKE IT. It certainly pushes my trust button over and over and over again...." 

"Lord Jesus, may we love and serve our loved ones to the end with faithfulness, mercy, and grace. May you, dear Lord, protect our hearts and our minds and our bodies. Strengthen us and bless the gift of love we imperfectly offer our loved ones . Heal them with heaven in your time. Amen"