Sitting with Death

By Paul Koch

Have you ever spent time with someone who is dying? And I don’t mean someone who is surprised by death’s arrival—the brutal car accident or the massive heart attack that sent us rushing to speak final words in a moment’s notice. No, I mean the brother or sister on hospice care who knows that they will not see another Christmas or another birthday but is patiently waiting for our Lord to call them home. Have you been there with them, talked with them, prayed with them, wept with them, and laughed with them?

It is strange at first to sit with death like that. While you’re there you know that it’s always around. It hangs heavy in the air, though most do not want to acknowledge its presence. But it can’t really be ignored. The morphine and sponge baths and comfortable hospital bed set up in the living room don’t mask what is really happening. And it shouldn’t be ignored. After all, what you are sitting next to is the ramification of lives bound up in sin. The wages of sin is death; the wages of sin are corruption and deterioration, becoming senile, and no longer being able to control basic bodily functions. Sitting with death is to sit with the fall of mankind.

Yet there is a strange confidence that can be found sitting there. It doesn’t really come from the sweet voices of family members who are still trying to ignore death in the presence of the dying, nor is it found in the multitude of clichés that spring up around such situations: “He had a good long life,” “She’s ready to go be with her husband. She terribly misses him,” “At least his suffering is under control.”

Rather, time and again, I have found that the comfort found while sitting with death comes from the mouth of the dying. There is no pretense—no faking it—in their words. The value of material things become passing and trivial matters. Talks of politics grow thin and seem shabby in the presence of death. What comes to the surface is something far more ancient, far more lasting, far more powerful than most of the concerns of our daily life.

Sitting there, I open my mouth and fumble through some stupid and forgettable words until I hit on the topic they really want to discuss as they die. It’s not their will, nor how the service will look, nor even what will happen to their kids after they’re gone. They want to talk about the gifts of Christ. They tell me about their eagerness to receive communion one more time, to hear absolution one more time, to pray to their Lord one more time even as they look forward to meeting him face to face. They don’t speak of finality, but of hope.

The words of the dying sitting with death at their bedside do not ignore his presence; they just don’t think that he gets the last say. There is a certain and emboldening courage in their words. An assurance that the Word and promise of Christ is far greater than the presence and threat of death. Though I come to bring them the gifts of Christ, they proclaim to me the defiant courage of the faithful.

Sitting with death in the presence of a dying saint is to sit with a warrior who shrugs off the terror and doubt of our age. This is one who sees better than we do the hope of the age to come, who knows that death is already doomed. For one day soon, we will all laugh for joy as death too is cast into the lake of fire.

Come Lord Jesus, come.