“Yea though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of death, thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” — Psalm 23:4
I keep thinking about people dying alone. And it breaks my heart.
I was in Europe when my dad died, but I was able to talk to him on the phone as they laid it against his pillow in the ICU, and I knew he was surrounded by my sisters. When Mom died, I recall the comfort it gave all of us to be there with her, praying with her, singing to her and holding her hand. It had been a few years since she really knew who I was, but I still knew her and being present made all the difference.
I was holding my ex-husband’s hand when he took his final breath — seven years after our divorce. It was one of the most sacred and healing moments in my life.
I’ve been a pastor for 30 years, three of which included a call as a nursing home chaplain, and so I’ve spent more hours than I can count sitting vigil at the bedsides of people who are dying, knowing that they are aware, even if they aren’t responsive. I never assume the person who is dying doesn’t know what is being said or who is present. I believe in the connection of the Spirit that makes the process of dying a truly sacred passage that defies human understanding.
And so I have been haunted by the idea that so many people are dying alone. Whether it is from the coronavirus or other causes, because of the need for separation and the restrictions in hospitals and care facilities, there are countless hands that aren’t being held when that final breath is taken.
As I was praying about this, however, I was reminded of something I once said to someone that I know came directly from God. I know that because it was far deeper and wiser than anything I could ever have come up with on my own — and because I didn’t remember saying it. When she shared it with me later, I thought, “Wow, that was clearly the Spirit of God speaking, not me.”
I was called in to an emergency situation. A 40-year-old man had been pulled into a grain elevator auger and suffocated. His wife was at the scene and their pastor was gone, so they needed someone to be with her.
I didn’t really know Dawn — we had attended the same 6 a.m. aerobic class a few times, where we were both equally uncoordinated (OK, I was worse), but other than nodding at each other and laughing, we had never spoken. I actually had to be reminded of who she was before I drove out to the elevator.
When I arrived, though, that didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was a tangible connection to Dawn and Bill’s deeply held faith. As I tried to provide whatever comfort I could to a woman who was left a widow with three children, the youngest of whom was not yet a year, I knew that what I said didn’t matter. Only my presence did.
However, as it turns out, what God said through me did matter because what was haunting Dawn was the fact that Bill had died alone. She told me that she couldn’t bear the thought of the fact that as he was dying, he was filled with fear and alone.
What I said to her, what the Holy Spirit led me to say, was something like this: “Bill was not alone. God was with him. In the Shepherd’s Psalm, it says, ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.’ So he couldn’t have felt fear. God was there with him and God’s comfort was all he needed for his final journey.”
As I think of people dying alone in the midst of this pandemic, I come back to that wisdom from God again and again when I start to feel despair. God is faithful to God’s promise, and our shepherding God assures us that God is with us. When we walk through death’s valley in the presence of our Lord, there is no room for fear. Only comfort. Only peace.
There is so much about this pandemic that we can’t control and that we do not know. The uncertainty is one of the worst things about it. But we do know that our God is a God who will not leave or abandon us in the midst of uncertainty and in the face of death.
There have been and there will be thousands upon thousands of people who will die alone before this time of Great Separation ends. But because I believe in a God of grace, I know that those who are dying will be linked to those who hold them dear by the mutual love in their hearts. That love will help them to know that even though those who they hold beloved are not with them in person, they are connected by the Spirit of Love that comes only from God.
But even more important, I believe in a God who assures us that we are never alone, especially in the valley of death’s shadow. God is with us. And when God, our Shepherd, is there, all fear is banished. We can only find comfort as we are led to our final destination.
O Shepherding God, be with now and at the hour of our death. Help those who are dying alone to be aware of your presence. Give comfort to those who mourn, that they may be assured of your abiding love. May we all know the peace that comes from having you lead us, through life and into life eternal with you. Amen