Three Lessons I Learned in Talking to the Dying

It was late at night. My wife’s grandfather (Pops) was battling an infection. His cancer was getting the best of his 88 year-old body. I had met Pops on many occasions. His talkative and gracious persona was quite captivating. He visited us on numerous occasions. When I was in seminary he and his wife came to visit us. Being the useless handy-man that I am, there were some lingering duties in the home that needed fixing. Pops came along, and with his decades of experience offered us a helping hand around our little townhome. At other times, he was gracious to us in letting us use his time-share for vacation. He was a generous soul; a soul deeply grounded in faithfulness to his God.

Pops was what some of us would call an old-time religion man. He liked his religion served with altar calls and Fanny Crosby. Rumor has it that I won he and his wife’s approval to marry their grand-daughter when I played every imaginable Fanny Crosby song I knew on my guitar one evening. But that’s just a rumor. He was a church-man; one of those rare birds who stayed in the same church for three decades.

It was a late night. My wife thought she’d give Pops a call. The doctor had called the family. It was just a matter of time. Pops had remembered his Creator in the days of his youth, and now in his last hours he was ready to meet Him. My wife asked me to step out of the room as she said her last good-bye. I didn’t think Pops would be able to talk… perhaps just listen. But he was relatively lucid. My wife spoke to him and said her good-byes. She had always loved him. I was reading in my office when she walked in and said, “Pops wants to talk to you.” I was a bit nervous. I didn’t think that in his last hours of life he would want to talk to his granddaughter’s husband. But he did. In fact, he made a point to do so.

As a pastor, I am always prepared for such situations. But this one caught me off guard – it was so sudden. When I receive a hospital call, I have a drive to think through what I’ll say, but this time the phone was handed to me and I had the honor of saying good-bye to a dying man possibly hours before his death.

Pop’s voice was stammering due to heavy medication. He used his last words to encourage me and to tell me how proud he was of me and my call to the ministry. He was quick to remind me that he did not agree on everything with me. I was tempted to tell him that sometimes I don’t even agree with myself, but I gently reminded him that I was glad that we are agreed in our union with Jesus Christ. He gave a hearty amen. He repeated himself a few times and thanked me for everything. I think there is peace in the heart of a dying man who knows that his children and grandchildren are cared for.

I had my pastoral companion with me. I carry it everywhere. It’s a Lutheran book on ministering to people in various situations in life. There is an entire section for ministering to the dying. It was absolutely perfect. The psalms I read and the prayer I used were affirmations that this phone call was not untimely, but perfect, as is God’s timing in every circumstance.

Pops died early in the morning. His family surrounded him and comforted him. It appeared he died in his sleep. Precious in the sight of God is the death of His saints, indeed.

I have been pastoring for less than a decade now, so my experience is very limited. But I have spoken to the dying on several occasions. For those who are younger in the ministry than I, or for those who simply want to be prepared to speak words of peace to the dying, here are three lessons to keep in mind:

First, be biblically prepared. The companion book I use has Psalm 23 in the King James Version. Maybe things will change 50 years down the road as modern translations gain greater notoriety, but in our generation, Psalm 23 ministers most effectively in the King James Version. Its sounds and rhythms speaks profoundly to the elderly. It is one of the psalms they have all memorized at some time in their lives. Additional passages may include Psalms 4, 27, 31, and 73.

Second, don’t pray for miracles in the presence of the dying, especially if the doctor has said they have only hours to live. Older saints at this stage in life have gone through every possible prayer for healing. Their community may have already prayed fervently for recovery and healing. But now, they are seeking rest – eternal rest. Praying for healing to the dying is a contradiction to their own petition to commit unto the hands of the Lord their spirit. If someone suddenly discovers he is ill, pray fervently, and call for the elders to anoint him with oil. But if he is in his last hours of life, pray that God would grant him comfort on earth before he meets his Messiah in heaven.

“At your chosen time, grant him a peaceful departure and a joyous entrance into everlasting life.” Amen.

Finally, if he is able to talk, listen. Listen attentively. Listen carefully. Listen lovingly. If he has been faithful to Christ, thank him for running the race well and for setting an example to you and your children of how Christ expects us to run the race on earth. If he is not able to talk, speak softly. In most cases, they are still able to hear you. Speak words of comfort. Read the psalms. Sing a song or hymn he is known to have loved. Share stories with him of fond memories together.

In these precious moments, God uses the weak to minister to the dying. What an honor to speak peace in the last moments of those making ready to meet the King of peace.

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