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.