What Has the Loss of Your Father Taught You About Ministering to the Dying?

Has the recent experience of your father's death been comparable to your experience as a pastor when older saints in your congregation have passed away?

It was not the same, that's for sure. Of course there are similarities, but to say goodbye to your father on this earth is a massive thing. To have prayed with others who have lost a father or mother is one thing. But to sit by his bed for a week, knowing that he is leaving, was very very different. You reherse your life differently. And your affections are different, because they are all bound up physically, emotionally, and historically with this man. So it wasn't the same. It was profoundly different.

I learned, in the midst of it, that I wish I had brought a songbook. You might think that I would've learned that with other people, but I never felt the right to tell people how to do it. But with my dad I felt like I should have brought the hymnal.

I brought my Bible, which was the mainstay; but my dad was a singer, and there are great old gospel songs that would've ministered to him. I tried to sing as many as I could by heart, but I would've sung a lot more if I had brought a hymnal.

I also learned little practical things about how to make a dying person comfortable. I got this advice from the wonderful geriatric specialist who was there. He said that the only discomfort that my dad would have in the two days before his death would be in his mouth. It was going to be so dry, because he would have to breathe with it open all the time.

So he gave me a tube of gel and a green-sponged swab, and he told me how to keep dad's mouth comfortable. And what I discovered was that my dad--while otherwise unconscious to me talking--would respond to the physical comfort of the sponge. It made him feel better.

Therefore I would recommend that anybody who is giving hospice to a parent should minister to their mouth. Get a little green sponge and some gel, and don't let them get a horribly dry mouth. Split the work up with the family and don't let them get uncomfortable. That's just a practical thing.

We live next door to Augustana home, here in Minneapolis, and there are five floors of people who are at different levels of dying. Families can minister to these people. It takes so little training. These people are not going to ask you some imponderable theological question. They are just going to be incredibly thankful.

And they need Christ. If they're believers then they need help to remember Christ, because the mind doesn't hold it. You'd think that if one spent a lifetime storing the Bible up in their minds then they would be okay. But that's not how dementia works. Dementia destroys connections. However, an immediate offer of Christ is able to trigger for them memories that are there but just not accessible without someone stimulating them with words or verses.

Therefore you can be doing amazing and spiritually life-giving work by giving the simplest reminders. That's why I say it doesn't take any great training. John 3:16 or Psalm 23 will be explosively real to a demented person who, left alone, has no capacity to remember the verses themselves. But if somebody helps them put it back in their brain then lots of things happen in making the connections.

Ministry that can be done for the dying--like providing physical comfort and spiritual encouragement--is phenomenal.