Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Jumping into Your Father's Arms

Leslie Basham: As a hospice nurse, Deborah Howard has talked with a lot of believers in Jesus about the end of their lives.

Deborah Howard: Most of them will say, “I’m not afraid to be dead. I’m afraid to die.” The process of dying terrifies them.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss for Monday, July 18.

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: Wayne and Gwen Stanford are a couple who have been long-time dear friends of mine. We met probably close to 30 years ago. They have been prayer partners. They have been something like grandparents to me because I haven’t had any living grandparents for many years. They’ve been supporters of Revive Our Hearts’ ministry.

We met some months ago at a funeral of a mutual friend and talked. At that time I knew that Wayne had been diagnosed with cancer, but he’d had treatment, and he was doing fairly well at the moment. We had a wonderful conversation.

After that encounter, I said to another friend, “Wayne Stanford is as ready as anyone I have ever talked with to face the Lord.” He was talking about his own situation in knowing that death could be around the corner and was talking about it so freely as if he knew he had done what God had sent him on this earth to do and knew that God would not take him a day sooner than God’s plan.

Well, this morning, as I was preparing to come into the studio to record this interview, I received an email from someone telling me that the doctors had said that it looks like Wayne has now just a very short time to live. Probably, unless the Lord intervenes or has different plans, by the time this interview airs, Wayne Stanford will be in heaven with the Lord.

So getting that email this morning made the subject we’re going to be talking about today much more personal and tender to my own heart. Perhaps it’s personal to your heart right now. You may be facing the imminent death of a loved one, a family member, a friend. You may be facing that yourself. Maybe you’re the one who has had that diagnosis, that prognosis.

If not, the time will come when you are hearing similar words about yourself and/or someone that you love. So I’m so grateful today that we have in the studio a new friend. Her name is Deborah Howard. She’s a hospice nurse, and she has cared for many patients who are in the final stages of life’s journey. She’s written a very thoughtful and helpful book called, appropriately, Sunsets. The sub-title is, Reflections for Life’s Final Journey.

Deborah, thank you so much for joining us on Revive Our Hearts today to talk about this important subject of death and dying from a Christian perspective.

Deborah: Well, thank you for your invitation for me to come.

Nancy: Deborah, you’ve been a hospice nurse for many years now. How many patients do you think you have tended to or cared for who are in the dying process? Do you have any idea how many that’s been now?

Deborah: I bet it’s probably getting close to 1,000 at this point.

Nancy: So you have sat by a lot of bedsides.

Deborah: A lot of bedsides.

Nancy: You have talked with a lot of family members and caregivers.

Deborah: I’ve held a lot of hands.

Nancy: Held a lot of hands and probably seen a lot of tears.

Deborah: I’ve seen a lot of tears, yes.

Nancy: And undoubtedly shed some of yourself.

Deborah: Right.

Nancy: Just for the people who are not aware of the whole concept of hospice care, tell us just a little bit about what that means and when someone would sign up to have hospice care.

Deborah: Well, first of all, Nancy, let me tell you that a lot of people do not even realize that hospice is a viable option for them. They think that a patient has to be on their death bed before they are appropriate for hospice, and I just want to dispel that myth.

Nancy: So when is the time that is appropriate?

Deborah: Usually, if a patient has a diagnosis that is considered terminal, they talk to their doctor about hospice if their doctor does not talk to them about it first. A good question you can ask your doctor is, “Do you think I’m appropriate for hospice?”

Many doctors, believe it or not, are real uncomfortable with the “D” word—dying. They do not like to talk about that. So a lot of times they do not mention it to the patient. But if the patient merely says, “Do you think I’m appropriate for hospice?” and the doctor says, “Yes,” what that tells you is that in his or her estimation, your prognosis, or the length of time that they think you’ll be here with us on this earth will be less than six months.

However, if you are in hospice care and six months go by, we do not boot you out because you haven’t died. We’ve had patients for two or three years in hospice program. As long as they are appropriate for hospice care, they are in the hospice program.

Nancy: And what is happening during that time? What kind of service are you providing during that period?

Deborah: I think the biggest thing that we can provide for a patient who is at a terminal stage of their life is medical management. Many times the families feel a sense of chaos when the diagnosis is rendered. Then they struggle to make ends meet. They struggle to know what to do for this patient, how they can help. They agonize over this.

A lot of times, it’s just because they don’t have the direction that they need. So what hospice does is we come in, and we evaluate the situation that the patient is in. Then we make recommendations.

From the first visit on, we’re continuing to teach the family and the patient not only what condition the patient is in, but what to expect next, what to do about it when that happens, that it is a totally normal part of this progression towards death, and we bring to the family the kind of peace that they could not even imagine before.

Medical management certainly, but I think one of the most important parts of hospice is the sense of being in control of the situation as much as possible instead of feeling completely overwhelmed with chaos.

Nancy: Do you find that some people are reluctant to even engage hospice care because that is somehow an acknowledgement that they’re facing the reality that this is terminal? Is that a hard step for people to get past?

Deborah: In most cases it is. One thing that we deal with a lot, especially right at first, after the diagnosis has been made, is a sense of denial. “No, things are not that bad. No, the doctor must have been wrong. No, I’m going to beat this.” They say it in many different ways, but what they’re actually doing is saying, “No, this can’t be true.”

That is a natural response to any of us, but it really helps when this response can be made through the lens of Scripture, through the lens of spiritual truth, because it’s only in the light of God that you can reconcile death on this earth.

Nancy: Now I would suppose it’s not just the person who’s dying that may have a struggle with denial, but it may also be their family members or close friends who struggle with this. Maybe they could be a hindrance to the person getting the care that they need.

Deborah: In most cases that’s true. I've found that the patients themselves embrace the idea of their mortality a lot more quickly than their family members. In some cases, I think, to their detriment because I’ve heard people before . . .

I remember one case in particular, the man—the patient—said, “Well, I’m not going to be here long.” Then his daughter said, “Now, Daddy, don’t you think about that. I don’t want to hear that anymore. We’re going to be positive in this household. We’re going to beat this. We’re going to get over this.”

What she did was she shut him down at a time when he needed to talk about this. Well, he looks at me, and I looked at him, and we both knew, and we both understood that what he was saying was true. I think he got more comfort from my shared understand of where he was than from that family member.

Many times I think they are losing out. They’re missing the opportunity to walk through this journey with their loved one because they themselves can’t embrace the fact that this person is dying.

Nancy: Why do you think it is so hard for us when that comes, whether it’s us or a loved one, to face that “D” word? What are the fears? What are the barriers to really dealing with this openly and honestly?

Deborah: This might surprise you, but I’ve talked to a lot of people about death. Most of them will say, “I’m not afraid to be dead. I’m afraid to die.” The process of dying terrifies them, but, especially if they are Christians, many times they’re not afraid of death itself but the dying process.

Nancy: So it’s the pain that is the fear?

Deborah: It’s the unknown. Anything that you do that’s unknown is fearful to you. Sometimes when you’re a kid, you remember jumping off a diving board or off a dock into your father’s waiting arms. He tells you, “Go ahead; I’ll catch you. I’ll catch you.”

The first time you do it, you’re terrified, but then he catches you, and then you go out and you jump again. The more you do something that once brought you fear, well, the less fearful you become, and, actually, it can become a joy.

Nancy: So what can help us face our own mortality or that of those that we love? What can help us move from denial to appropriate acceptance?

Deborah: There are a couple of things.

I think education and instruction is vitally important. I think that the more you understand about what’s going on, the more sense it makes and the better you will be able to respond to it.

So on one level, I would say that the teaching that hospice can provide to let you know what condition your loved one is in and teach you what to look for, what to expect, how to respond, I think that helps you to move past that denial until you feel safe enough to actually understand that this person really is dying.

I had a friend whose father was dying, only she didn’t realize it. She would tell me what was happening to her father. Through what she told me, I knew that he was dying. I suggested that she look into hospice, and she said, “Oh, he’s not ready for that yet.” I knew he was. Based on what she had told me, he would have been appropriate for hospice, but she just didn’t think he was at that place yet.

She drove to Florida to take care of her father. Her sister was there, and she wanted to buy her a copy of Sunsets. They went to a bookstore one night, and they bought the copy of Sunsets. Then she proceeded to read to her sister a passage that I had asked her to read. In doing so, she recognized her father, and she said, “Oh, my goodness. He is appropriate for hospice.”

She thanked me later for not pressing on that but just to steer her in the right direction where she could read about it and understand where her father was. From that time on, she stopped fighting it, and she started embracing it.

Nancy: Now, accepting that dying is going on does not mean that there is not going to be pain or grief or heartache or hardship in this process.

Deborah: That’s true. You mourn from the moment you suspect the diagnosis could be true.

Nancy: Does that grieving, that mourning, does it reflect a lack of faith or a lack of spiritual maturity?

Deborah: I’m sure it can, but I don’t think it does in every case. I think the other half of the coin, when you asked me what they could do to move past denial is to know that information is certainly vital. But the other half of that is if they are grounded in the truth of Scripture, reminding themselves of the promises of God and reminding themselves what awaits them on the other side of death can really bolster their courage and their faith and understanding of the road they’re traveling and can even bring them great joy.

Nancy: So what kind of promises have you seen be really helpful to people in the process of dying themselves or watching a loved one die?

Deborah: Well, all the promises that Jesus has made about the fact that He is with us always, that He is not going to leave us or abandon us. One of the passages, I think, can be the most encouraging is found in the book of John, chapter 14, where He promises us that He is coming back for us. He says to His, at this point, heartbroken disciples who are facing losing their friend and their master, Jesus Christ.

He says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in Me. In My Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you, and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with Me that you may be where I am” (vv. 1-3 paraphrased).

Nancy: So He said this to people whose hearts were troubled. He said, “I have a promise that can give you peace in the midst of that troubling situation.”

Deborah: Right. He is talking to His grieving disciples, and, in essence, He is talking to each and every one of us who are believers in Him. He is not going to leave us alone. He’s not going to leave us orphaned.

In 1 Peter we’re told that our inheritance is kept for us in heaven. Well, the flip side of that is that we are being kept for our inheritance. God has it all under control, and His lovingkindness, and His faithfulness, and His reliability to us is so much greater than the best act of faith we can muster. That is the only true source of our hope for life after death.

I hear a lot of stories that people will tell me about their near-death experience—these are those experiences you hear where a person says that for a while they were dead, and they went through a dark tunnel, and they saw light at the end of the tunnel. I hear these stories from people from time to time. But those stories have no base and no foundation in Scripture, and we don’t know what the source of those stories are.

We don’t know whether it’s a hypoxia, which is a state of oxygen deprivation. Perhaps their brain is sending signals that are not true. I know that many times these accounts are very believable and they’re coming from a source that you would not suspect—maybe from a friend or a loved one—but they can be misleading and misguiding, especially if people really think that heaven is like that—a bright light, because heaven is so much more than that.

Nancy: You talk in your book, Sunsets, about what heaven is like, what we do know from God’s Word. You provide a lot of encouragement for those who have placed their trust and their hope in Jesus Christ and have that to look forward to.

Deborah: There are no huge, long passages that say, “This is what heaven is like,” but there are a lot of shorter passages that are like snippets of a picture of what heaven is going to be.

One of the best books I’ve read on the subject is by John MacArthur called The Glory of Heaven. What John does in this book is he takes snippets from different portions of Scripture, and he kind of puts them together so you can see the big picture, as well as we can discern the big picture—understanding, of course, that most of our answers will not be realized until we get there. But He has given us glimpses into the hereafter, and for those who are resting in Christ Jesus as their Savior, it is a blessed place and a blessed event.

Nancy: You’ve watched hundreds of people pass from this life into the next.

Deborah: Yes.

Nancy: I’m sure some of those knew Christ in a very personal way, they had a personal faith in Him, a living hope, as Peter says, and others likely did not.

Deborah: That is correct.

Nancy: How would you—and I know each case is probably different—but, as you look at all those that you’ve watched, what difference does it make when it comes time to die that you have a relationship with Jesus Christ?

Deborah: I can’t make a generality about that, but I will say that the tendency is that they struggle less. They are more at peace. They are more accepting. They move toward the end of their journey with more joy and hope than people who do not.

One young man comes to mind. He was dying of AIDS, and he died a horrible death, just like he was clawing at life to try and stay here. He did not want to die. It was just the most heartbreaking death. It’s heartbreaking for me; it’s heartbreaking for his family, but I especially hated it for him because of the bewilderment that was in his eyes.

On the other hand, I’ve seen deaths that are very, very peaceful, that are just a home going almost, with that kind of joy and acceptance from the families. It’s a wonderful thing to behold. A lot of people wouldn’t think it’s possible about a subject so emotional as the end of somebody’s life, but it is doable. It is possible. I’ve seen it time and time again how their faith in the Lord and faith in what they believe about the hereafter has stood them in good stead and has given them such a sweet and submissive attitude about their home going.

Nancy: That reminds me, Deborah, that wonderful passage at the end of Pilgrim’s Progress where Christian and Hopeful, two pilgrims, pass over to the Celestial City. They have to cross over this river, and it looks very hard, and Christian begins to become despondent, despairing. He doesn’t think he can get over the river. He doesn’t think he can make it through.

Then it says, “Christian began to sink, and crying out to his good friend Hopeful, he said, ‘I sink in deep waters. The billows go over my head. All his waves go over me.’ Then said the other [as they were passing over this picture of death], ‘Be of good cheer, my brother; I feel the bottom, and it is good.’”

Of course, then they do pass over into the Celestial City. It’s, of course, not a real story, but just a picture, an allegory of what we know by faith, that is, that the water may be deep, it may be turbulent, it may not be an easy passing, but the bottom is safe because underneath are the everlasting arms.

For those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ, there is that confidence, that assurance, that hope that on the other side Christ is waiting to meet us. That really does make all the difference when it comes time to die.

Deborah: That’s also a very accurate portrayal of death, too. You might be surprised about this, but many patients feel that they’re not really that afraid of being dead, of what death may bring, but they’re afraid of the process of dying.

That is true of most people when it gets close. They’re just afraid of the dying process, but they’re not afraid of death itself.

So, as a hospice nurse, one of the things I do is reassure them about the dying process, that as much as possible they are not going to suffer; they are not going to struggle, and that their home going will be a peaceful one. In most cases we can manage their symptoms to a point that this is true.

Nancy: We have a researcher here at Revive Our Hearts who read this book, Sunsets, before I had a chance to get into it, and she sent back an overview for me. She said at the beginning, “This is the most incredible book I have ever read about suffering, grief, and death.”

Deborah: Oh, my goodness.

Nancy: I want to say that to our listeners because, whether you’re in this, facing an experience like this at the moment as I am with a friend, or perhaps with a family member, or perhaps just contemplating down the road your own home going or that of someone who is dear to you or ministering to someone else who’s going through that, here’s a really helpful resource as you face and help others face life’s final journey into that next life, into eternity.

It’s called Sunsets. It’s by Deborah Howard. Join us the next time on Revive Our Hearts as we continue this conversation about “Looking at Death and Dying from a Biblical Perspective.”

Leslie: That’s Nancy Leigh DeMoss with Deborah Howard.

Now, it’s very easy to take Nancy’s advice and get a copy of Deborah’s book. Just make a contribution of any size to support the ministry of Revive Our Hearts. We’ll send the book Sunsets to show our appreciation.

Ask for it when you donate by phone. The number is 1-800-569-5959, or visit ReviveOurHearts.com.

Deborah Howard will be participating on the Revive Our Hearts listener blog today. Just scroll to the end of today’s transcript, add your comment or question, and read the thoughts from Deborah and our listeners. That’s at ReviveOurHearts.com.

Well, as Deborah Howard finished the book Sunsets, she didn’t realize that the theme of the book was about to hit so close to home.

Deborah: Nancy, I cannot tell you how grateful I was that I had just finished writing this book. My mind had already been steeped in the promises of God and in the truths that the Scriptures have for us to understand. Understanding the Scriptures makes a situation, even this emotional one, doable and manageable.

But one of the things that was the very hardest for me was something that I talked to my family members all the time—the family members of my patients. I will tell them toward the end that it’s really important for them to get to a place emotionally when they can let their loved one go.

In the hospice business, we call this “giving permission.” In the process of dying, it’s a lot easier, a lot more peaceful if you have found acceptance with what’s happening, and you tell your loved one, “It’s okay for you to go.”

It was without a doubt the hardest and one of the most emotional things I’ve ever done. I, as a hospice nurse, was not exempt from that kind of grief.

Leslie: Find out what happened tomorrow on Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

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