Being there for someone who is dying is never easy, whether we love them deeply or have been hurt deeply by them. The following are five things that are important to say. Some will be harder than others, but if you can find something for each, you could turn an ending into a beginning.
Remember, love goes deeper than like. This doesnt mean you have to like the person; it does mean you want more for them (and for yourself) than they were able to give. Say this even if the person already knows it. Words carry power, and love is always the best place to start.
Think of the ways you are a better person because of this person. Again, that might come from positive love and support or from negative learning of what hurts. Find something, some moment, no matter how small, that you can genuinely be thankful for and center on that. Remember, we are biologically wired to remember the bad more than the good, so do the work to counter that programming and find the good.
For those who have many such moments, dont skimp out. Share them all. Stay at that bedside and recount the blessings that came in all the different chapters of your life together. It will help you treasure the legacy they have given you and give them a chance to hear the difference they have made, proud and at peace with a life well-lived. Hold this thankfulness close. It will be comfort and strength for both of you.
This is where things get hard. You dont have to be able to forgive everything, but try to take at least one step towards forgiving something while they are still here. That will make the other steps easier to take when they have passed. It will also give a chance for closure. Even if the person doesnt take you up the opportunity, the work you did to make it possible wont be a waste of time. Youll be that much freer to live, a little less trapped and limited by their harm.
If the harm were talking about is an abusive pattern, forgiveness does not mean putting yourself back in that pattern. Keep yourself safe. The level of harm youre dealing with will determine the ways you can and cannot stay connected to the person. Thats what forgiveness is a balance of distance and connection. What distance do you need to be safe as your own person, not what this pattern is forcing you to be? What connection can you maintain to give healing and change a chance?
Remember you only have control over yourself, so as much as all of us would like to squash out the injustice youve experienced, we cant force someone else to change. Thats why space and connection are both important pieces in this process.
Again, forgiveness isnt about letting the other person off the hook but about letting go of the pain or resentment around their harm. Also, dont do this step alone, regardless of the level of harm were talking about. Ask people that are your safe space to support you. If you dont have a village, come find me and Glendale United Methodist Church. Well help you find your people or be your people, whatever works best for you.
Make this bit mutual. Relationships are always messy, and rarely does anyone carry full blame or innocence.
Especially for those in the active process of dying, giving your blessing is a gift they need. As hard as it is to watch someone die, the person dying is the one doing the hardest work. Be there for them. Think of childbirth and all of its intensity and risks. Think of gathering around this person and blessing them just as you would for a mother giving birth.
In the Christian tradition, one of my favorite images is of the community of saints gathering around the person dying, ready to welcome them into the family just as we gather to welcome a new baby here.
No matter what your faith tradition or non-tradition, I pray your experience of saying goodbye is a meaningful and blessed one.
Kate Payton is a recent transplant from the Baltimore-Washington conference where she served for 15 years in campus ministry, suburban, and urban settings. As a pastor, she looks to create a community of both support and accountability where curiosity and playfulness keep us all resilient and growing. She lives in Lakeville with her husband Abraham and dog Olaf.
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