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Life Lessons from the Dying

By Cameron Lawrence

Sure as night follows day, death comes to everyone. For those of us who trust Christ for salvation, dying is merely a transition, as if moving from one room to another, into the rest and loving care of God the Father. Trudy Harris, longtime nurse and former president of the Hospice Foundation for Caring, has witnessed the passing of hundreds of people from this life to the next. Here she answers questions about her experiences as a hospice nurse and lessons learned from the bedside.

In Touch: How did you come to be a hospice nurse?

Trudy Harris: While I was raising children and had been out of the nursing profession for a while, my husband’s father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He asked if he and his wife could come to stay with us during this period of time, and of course we said yes. I had heard and read about a new way of caring for dying people at home and had been very drawn to the naturalness of that thinking. I knew there was a new small hospice program in our city, and I stopped by one day to inquire about their services.

As God would have it, the director of nursing lived on my very street and agreed to admit my father-in-law into the program and be his nurse. When he died beautifully several weeks later, I was hooked. The care he received was wonderful, tender, enlightened, and it gave him and his wife and our entire family a sense of God’s presence and peace. His nurse told me I was born to be a hospice nurse and suggested I work with them. I knew immediately that this was an answer to prayer.

I had been told many times back in my nurses’ training that I was meant to be a “bedside nurse.” My nursing director said, “You were meant to be at the bedside of God’s children.” And 40 years later, as a hospice nurse, I met that director again. She asked if I remembered what she had told me at graduation. Indeed, I did.

What lessons have you learned from the dying about living well?

Dying people never wish they had worked longer or harder. Dying patients always wish they had forgiven earlier and been more compassionate in their lives. The forgiveness and understanding I saw in both patients and families was a real lesson for me and showed me the freedom that comes to those who show mercy and love to others. Those who were most peaceful as they were dying had practiced the law of love rather than the letter of the law. And many a day, I walked away from the bedside of a dying person, having learned how to love better rather than waiting for the tomorrow that might not come. Live every day as if it is your last, and one day you will be right.

And what have you learned about God through all this? How was your faith affected?

We often said you could become a hospice nurse and not be a believer but that you could not stay a hospice nurse and not be a believer. Everything I saw, heard, and learned at the bedside increased my faith tremendously. I understood the merciful heart of Jesus better than I had ever known it before. I saw the extent to which He would go to save each and every soul He had created, and how He didn’t want to lose even one. I saw the way He enabled people, at the very door of death, to turn and recognize His face for the first time in their lives. I came to understand that we have no knowledge at all about how dearly He loves us and how much He wants us to be with Him in heaven for all eternity. Every patient in my care grew my faith in one way or another, no matter what his or her faith life had been previously.

What surprised you most about hospice work?

The biggest surprise, in the beginning, was the intimacy I saw happening between the dying person and God. At first I tried to explain away all of the experiences they shared with me, thinking that surely the medications, dehydration, or the illness itself was causing some of the things I heard them say. Slowly but surely, I came to realize that seeing angels, hearing beautiful music, experiencing the presence of loved ones who had died years before were all very, very real. These were experiences shared by young and old alike, no matter the culture or background, and they were all so similar in both context and the comfort experienced by each patient that it could not be ignored.

I also came to the realization that many who had no background educationally, spiritually, or intellectually became enlightened about the things of God in ways that could be explained only through the Master’s touch. From a human standpoint, we think we have all the answers and know the mind of God really well. What I came to accept is that when Scripture tells us we “see through a glass, darkly” and “our ways and God’s ways” are not the same (1 Cor. 13:12; Isa. 55:8), Scripture is so right. God has a different plan—and one that we are often not privy to.

Why do you think some people find it difficult to believe in the types of encounters the dying have with angels or other messengers of God?

We, as a people, are jaded by the world and oftentimes have not allowed ourselves to experience and accept all the ways God shows Himself to us every day. We are too busy to notice or comprehend, so when we hear of these things happening, they can seem to be too foreign from our own experience for us to accept.

People have preconceived ideas about God—who He is, how powerful He is, how He thinks, how He judges us. They have very little real understanding about the “prodigal son” or the “one lost sheep” that Jesus spoke about so often in Scripture. The fact that He came down to earth—to live among us, to become human like us and to be God at the same time—is somehow lost on many people who attend church regularly and think they are living the way He calls us to. God presents Himself to us in every and any way He knows will most effectively draw us to Him. The earth and heavens, all of His creation is His to do with as He chooses. The fact that He allows people, as they are dying, to experience all of that in a beautiful way can be hard for those of us who do not yet understand His heart.

Those who walk with and talk to Jesus as a friend and Savior every day have a much easier time of seeing what He is showing us. That kind of relationship makes it easier to find the comfort He wants us to have every day—for ourselves and those around us.

What can you say about the difference between people who led lives of faith and those who didn’t, when they come to their final days?

People are looking for God all their lives, whether they know it or not. Since we are made in His image and likeness, we are not whole until He is the center of our lives. We look for God—who is love, acceptance, forgiveness, compassion, and mercy—without knowing it sometimes. Only when people are graced with the knowledge of Him, either early or late in life, are they finally able to find peace. The gift is not so much that we have loved God but that He has loved us first.

How has your work affected the way you see people in general, not just the infirm?

Hospice nursing helps you to see from a very new perspective the way God interacts with all of us on a daily basis. My first book, Glimpses of Heaven, dealt primarily with God’s presence in the lives of terminally ill and dying people. More Glimpses of Heaven concentrates on the ways God presents Himself through others in our daily lives. The experience of seeing, up close, the intimacy of God’s love for all of His creatures is an eye opener on many levels and has helped me to be much more aware of His love and presence every day. I have seen Him in so many people I would not have ordinarily recognized Him in previously; I’ve also realized that He presents Himself in people, circumstances, and all the other ways He knows will most attract us to Him.

Have your views on illness and death changed over the years?

For some reason, death has never frightened me. Losing a loved one or friend is always very, very sad. But watching God’s intimate connection to hundreds of men, women, and children as they die has only strengthened my belief in all the things Scripture promises about eternity. To hear a young child tell a parent that Jesus has her by the hand and that she is going with Him is a miracle unto itself. To see a husband, just as he leaves this earth, smile broadly and reach out to the wife that died before him, is beautiful. To be told by a man—whose son is in prison for life—that this son visited him today in his room (when you know that is not possible), and to watch him die peacefully the next day because of that is to see God’s tender heart, up close and personal.

What advice would you give to our readers concerning the death of loved ones, or even approaching their own deaths?

Read the Bible, and learn what Jesus says about eternity and all that He has planned for us: “Do not be afraid; I am with you always, even to the end of time.” “I go before you to prepare a place for you so that where I am you also may be.” “In my Father’s house there are many mansions” (Matt. 28:20; John 14:1-4).

When loved ones are dying, be with them, listen to them, be the same person you have always been with them. If you told jokes, tell some. If you went on walks together, find a way. If they wish they had been able to do one other thing that they did not get to do, make it happen.

As one patient told me, “Dying is like walking from the living room into the dining room—no beginnings and no endings. There is no such thing as time.” People will only be afraid if you are. Take the journey with them and reflect God’s love to them. They will then die in peace and be unafraid.

Copyright 2014 In Touch Ministries, Inc. All rights reserved. www.intouch.org. In Touch grants permission to print for personal use only.


28 comments
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  • July 02, 2011 10:54 AM

    by

    Hospice volunteers were so helpful to me in the last months of my mother's life. I now take my autoharp and play and sing in hospice centers and nursing homes.
    I'd like to share something i did when my mother died that was wonderful therapy for me, gave healing and closure. At the last minute, I did her make-up for the viewing. I'm sure family members did this years ago but in this day and time, I doubt many think of doing it since the funeral home prepares the body. I would strongly suggest a return to this practice as it brings peace and comfort to the one doing one last thing in saying goodbye to their loved one.
  • April 26, 2011 08:42 AM

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    thanks so much Nurse Harris i appreciate this
  • March 31, 2011 04:21 PM

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    MY MOM WENT "HOME" FEB. 17, 2011, AND I WAS ABLE TO HOLD HER HAND AS SHE WENT INTO THE ARMS OF JESUS. AS THE LAST PERSON WROTE, IT WAS PAINFUL FOR ME, BUT GOD MET ME WHERE I WAS, PICKED ME UP IN HIS WONDERFUL ARMS AND IS STILL HUGGING ME!! I THANK GOD THAT ONE DAY I WILL SEE JESUS FACE, AND THE FACE OF MY DEAR MOTHER.
  • March 30, 2011 04:37 AM

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    So Inspirering,I will be byeing the book!!!!!!
  • March 30, 2011 04:21 AM

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    my father is in hospice now i see Gods love and he is drawing me closer to him.
    Thank you for this article
  • March 29, 2011 11:13 AM

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    Words cannot express what a comforting and wonderful organization hospice is.They were everything to me when my husband was dying, Day after day, so loving and dependable. I thank God for hospice. AMEN.
  • March 28, 2011 06:47 PM

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    This article was an excellent article and I believe it provides a great message to those who work in the hospice area. When my Christian mother died I was 33 yrs. old and the Lord spoke to me in the visitation hour and said she is not there. I was very comforted and had a peacefulness to come over me.
  • March 26, 2011 09:21 PM

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    I thank you. Praise Go the care givers who do his work.
  • March 20, 2011 07:36 PM

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    Thank you for printing this moving, comforting article.
  • March 19, 2011 09:28 PM

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    this topic is sooooo beautiful god bless charles stanley/family
    & god bless trudy harris/family thanks to god be the glory amen
  • March 13, 2011 08:40 AM

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    Just as God has always came through in the past, once again He has done it again! My sister has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and my first reaction was fear, after reading this article, I know better how to help my sister make this journey, and perhaps she will show me how. All I know is, is that I trust and thank God.
  • March 12, 2011 11:40 PM

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    One more reason to understand that God, is in control, even s we pass from this life to the next......March 11 2011
  • March 11, 2011 06:48 PM

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    Beautifully said. Well spoken... from one hospice nurse to another. God bless you, Trudy, for the wonderful work that you do!
  • March 11, 2011 06:07 PM

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    This article is so true - being with my mother at home under hospice care was a life-changing experience. Hospice nurses make the end of life experience of a loved one a truly spiritual experience and make the loved one's death much easier to experience. My mother's last seven weeks of life were peaceful and calm and beautiful. Hospice nurses truly show their patients God's love here on earth - they are true angels!!!
  • March 11, 2011 05:38 PM

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    Hospice was a wonderful experience for my husband and I. We had hospice for my 92 year old mother - they could not have been more caring and made my mother's last weeks on this earth peaceful and comfortable. She passed very peacefully seven weeks after she returned home - we could not have asked for a better home-going for her. Hospice nurses truly are angels - the ways in which they minister to those approaching the end of life is truly a life-changing and spiritual experience. They are truly angels on earth and an earthly extension of God's love. They truly make the death of a loved one much easier to handle. Read Trudy Harris' first book and am looking forward to reading the 2nd one.
  • March 11, 2011 02:51 PM

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    Lost my Mother inNovember. Had an amazing experience with the Love and proteciion of God on her behalf (and mine). As a minister I have been considering Hospice ministry. This was helpful
  • March 08, 2011 07:10 PM

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    I am currently a volunteer at a senior center it is a bit like to a huspice house and i can see God in them when they are not feeling well . by caring for the elrderly in any we can we feel that we are helping them feel GOD's presents.I have learned a lot in this article and i am encarage to do more for the living who are lost.GOD BLESS
  • March 04, 2011 11:17 PM

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    As both a manage/caregiver in a long term care facility, and a hospice volunteer who sits vigil with patients in their last days, I can only echo what Ms. Harris speaks of here. To witness the Lord's presence in someone's death is incredibly reassuring. There is nothing to fear in leaving this world if we hold fast to Jesus and let him carry us away.
  • March 04, 2011 04:25 PM

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    when my Mum was sick and approaching death, even though she could not speak too or communicate with us, we had the powerful conviction that Jesus was with her.
    As she grew weaker and weaker lifting her hands in praise became more and more difficult until she could only lift her hands from the wrists and finally no more.
    People on the ward and visitors enquired why she was doing this and we explained she was worshipping God the best way she could.

    The picture of Jesus communicating with her impressed itself in my heart and on my mind and as a result brought me peace and increased my faith in God.
    I am convinced that others were led to Christ at this time.

    This experience served me well, when I was nigh unto death in intensive care.
    Iknew I was dying, couldn't communicate with anyone besides God, and Jesus appeared and restored my life in answer to world-wide prayers.

    I Thank God for Jesus, my Mother and her unspoken testimony.
  • March 04, 2011 01:35 AM

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    thanks be to God
  • March 03, 2011 01:25 PM

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    very moving to read.
  • March 03, 2011 12:30 PM

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    This is awesome. I had hospice care for my mother, and the support they provided was of great help to my mother and family. I praise God for those who provide Hospice support.
  • March 02, 2011 08:52 AM

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    thank you so much... im a nurse also... and so afraid every time there is a emergency... and who are dying... thank you so much for this topic... it helps me alot
  • March 02, 2011 12:07 AM

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    I really enjoyed reading this article. I am only 26, but I look forward to growing older. I have always loved sitting with and listening to older people talk about the lives they lead. It is a chance to learn and improve oneself. I always thought to maybe work at a retirement home, but I think a hospice would be so much better. I am currently, looking for a job and I think I may have found what I want to do for a while...

    Death has never scared me, but dying without fulfulling my purpose does.
  • March 01, 2011 10:56 PM

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    l am involved in Hospital Ministry and reading this has been an eye opener. From henceforth l, by God's grace, approach with renewed knowledge and understanding.
    It all boils down to "...but the greatest of all is LOVE."

    Victor Mwabili - Kenya.

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