Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Letting Go of Someone You Love

Leslie Basham: When you're walking with a friend or family member through the final stages of their lives, Deborah Howard says you need to remember something important.

Deborah Howard: God loves our loved one more than we can ever love him. God loves him more.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss for Tuesday, July 19.

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: You may have heard me share in the past here on Revive Our Hearts about a time a number of years ago, back in the mid-80s, when my youngest brother was killed in a car accident. Although, when you believe in providence, you know there is no such thing as an accident. It was a car wreck.

At the memorial service for my brother David, who was so dearly loved—not only by our family, but by many others as well . . . At twenty-two years old, he was a college student. I remember one of the pastors at the memorial service reminding us that David had not gone from the land of the living to the land of the dead, as we might think, but that he had gone from the land of the dying to the land of the living.

Our hearts were encouraged and strengthen as we heard God's perspective on death and dying on this, what many would call, an untimely death. As we looked at God's sovereignty, God's providence, we were reminded that with God there is nothing untimely, that all things are in His hands and within His care.

I thought about the loss of my brother—the home going of my brother—as I was reading a book that has come into my hands recently called, Sunsets: Reflections for Life's Final Journey. It is by Deborah Howard who is a hospice nurse and has cared for many people who are in the process of dying and has ministered to their caregivers. Deborah, thank you so much for being with us on Revive Our Hearts today to minister to us and help us to know how to minister to others on this important subject of life's final journey.

Deborah: Well, thank you Nancy. It's a joy to be here.

Nancy: I want to thank you for writing this book, Deborah. In the forward to the book, Dr. D.A. Carson, who is a noted theologian and writer, said this book is for “anyone who is dying, anyone who knows someone is dying, or anyone who wants to learn how to help and comfort those who are dying.” I read that and I thought that covers pretty much everybody at some point of our lives. This book really has practical, biblical help for people who are facing death and dying in any way in different stages.

This whole message is not just a theoretical one for you. In fact, you were sharing with me that as the book was going to print, you received the news that your brother had been diagnosed with cancer. How did hearing that news affect you in light of the fact that you had just written this book, as a hospice nurse, on the subject of facing life's final journey?

Deborah: I want say that I was not any less surprised than anybody else would have been. In hearing this news, my brother was only 48 years old at that point, I believe. I was very shocked and surprised. 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.

I would like to just say to your listeners that understanding the Scriptures makes a situation, even this emotional one, doable and manageable. Losing my brother was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. It was extremely hard for me. Being a hospice nurse was not any guarantee from not having to experience that kind of anguish.

My brother was my best friend. He was only 20 months younger than me. We were only one year apart in school. We were best friends through school. We were spiritual brother and sister as well. We had so many great talks and so many experiences together.

My brother, who had always been very resistant about putting himself out there in the public, found out that in essence he was dying. Something very unusual and wonderful happened to him. All of a sudden, he could not stop talking about the goodness of God, even in the face of adversity.

So there I was hoping to be a great example to my brother, a great encouragement to him, and a resource for him as he's going through this process. He in turn became a great example to me of how sweet it is to talk to people about the goodness of God in the face of adversity.

One of the things that I did was on chemo days, I stayed with him in the chemo lab. The nurses there allowed me to do that—professional courtesy, or whatever. I stayed with him and my job for those four hours once a week was to make the time pass more quickly for my brother.

I have always been a big ham. I've always been the type to say, “Hey, Ta-da! Look at me!” When I was growing up, John was always the one in the back applauding. But this gave me a chance and watch him shine. The other people who were in the chemo lab on John's days of chemo, many came up to him and told him what a tremendous encouragement he was to them and how sweet they thought we were as a couple. I don't know if they knew we were brother and sister, but they got used to seeing us together.

The joy that filled his eyes when he talked to people about God was just a beautiful thing to watch. It really encouraged me, too. Instead of my comforting him, I found his attitude comforting to me.

Nancy: Did you find that that continued through the whole process of his dying?

Deborah: Absolutely. I asked him one time, “Are you really handling this as well as you seem to be? Because I’ve seen no trace of fear, anger, or turmoil.”

He said, “What do I have to be upset about, Dee? I'm going to be with Christ. I'm in a win-win situation. He'll either heal me and I’ll be able to stay and watch my daughters grow up, or He'll take me and I’ll be in His presence.”

He said, “If you were the one dying, I might be a little upset about that. But it's me, and I’m looking forward to being with my Lord.” That was just his attitude. He never changed.

One of the things that was the very hardest for me was that I talked to family members all of the time, the family members of my patients. I would tell them toward the end that it is 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.

I'm not at all taking away from God's timing in all of this, because I know that is appointed before we are even born. I'm just saying that in the process of dying, it's a lot easier and a lot more peaceful if you have found acceptance with what is happening and you tell your loved one, “It's okay for you to go.”

I’ve told people this so many times in my career as a hospice nurse, but this was the first time that I had to reach that position, that place where I could let my brother 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. But my tears were for myself. I want to make that clear. My brother was going to a better place, and I would not have him come back.

He was just a skeleton when he died. He was 51 years old when he died. A lot of people mistook us for father and daughter, and he's 20 months younger than me. There he was accepting his own death and I was just not ready to let him go.

Then on one visit I saw him there racked with pain, and I saw how skeletal he had become. It was then that I was able to say, “Lord, take him to You and be merciful to him.” My tears were only for me because I knew how much I would miss him.

Even now I look back and visibly you can see that I am still upset about it. But I’m not upset about his home going; I just miss him.

I want the listeners to understand that I am in no way saying that I have mastered these techniques and that I am somehow on a plain above you and endowing you with this vast knowledge that I have accrued over the years. I'm saying I'm one of you. I have been through this myself. I know the pain.

You know what? A hospice nurse shouldn't be a hospice nurse if they've forgotten that kind of pain of losing somebody that you love. It is never easy, but it is doable. You can go through it with a godly attitude and come out stronger in the end than you started into the journey.

Nancy: So for the person who is losing a loved one—and you have sat, held their hands, watched their tears and probably shed some of your own in your professional role as a hospice nurse—how do you encourage somebody? How do you help them walk through the process of losing a loved one? They called you in for hospice care. They are maybe beside themselves and don't know what to expect. How can you help prepare them for what they are going to face over those next days, weeks, and months.

Deborah: Many times they take their cues from me. If I go in and act like this is the worst thing that has ever happened, they pick up on that. If I go in and something about the patient's death frightens me, they are going to pick up on that. Fortunately, I have a very positive attitude about death and dying. So I’m very comfortable with it.

What I do is the very first time I go into the patient's home, I start the dialogue about that, because many times a family can't talk about those things. So what I do is come in and in a very non-threatening kind of way, I try to open the conversation and make it a very matter-of-fact, unemotional comment to which they will respond. The moment they respond, the subject is out. They have spoken the words. From then on, it does get easier and easier to talk about.

I don't play on their heartstrings at first, because they are already in such an emotional state, in most cases. So what I do is I stick to what is going on inside the patient physiologically. If there are signs and symptoms, I try to explain those signs and symptoms through what the body is actually doing to cause those symptoms so they understand what is going on.

Then, little by little, just a very slow, gradual kind of teaching and communication to them that this person is in fact dying, that the progress has started. Then I just try to help them deal with each and every step of it.

By now, I know what the future is going to hold for this particular individual. I can pretty well tell what symptoms they will probably experience. So I just try to teach them each and every step of the way what is happening now, why, what to expect in the future, and what to do when that happens.

It sort of empowers them. All of a sudden, they know they cannot control the death and dying of their loved one, but they understand they can control how this person dies. We have to rearrange our goals from an unrealistic goal, which would be the patient will get better—outside of a miracle from God, that's not going to happen.

Nancy: Is that a hard goal for people to relinquish?

Deborah: Yes. Over the course of the whole illness, they've held out the hope that this person is going to get better. All of a sudden, the doctor has told them that this person is not going to get better. They have to deal with it, and it's very difficult for them to make that transition. But it's helpful when somebody comes in and says, “I understand that is an unreasonable goal. Let me give you a goal that is reachable, that is measurable. That is, we will keep this patient comfortable for the rest of their life, however long that lasts.”

I tell people I can't affect the date that this person dies. But we can work together to make sure that this patient does not suffer or struggle over much during the course of the death.

Nancy: Do you find that some believers think that this is a lack of faith to just concede that the person is going to die?

Deborah: Right. They've kind of gotten used to thinking that would be giving up. They don't want to give up. That's the phrase that I hear all of the time.

Nancy: Many of them are praying, “Lord, would you heal this person?” They believe God can. They don't know if He will. If they acknowledge that this person is dying, might they feel that that is spiritually weak, giving up faith in the Lord?

Deborah: No. Sometimes, even with the most fervent prayer, God's answer is “no.” He does not answer every prayer the way that we would like for Him to, but He answers every prayer the way that it fits in His divine, providential will for our lives and for the life of our loved one.

One thing that was interesting to me is the concept that God loves our loved-one more than we can ever love him. God loves him more. If that person has a faith in Jesus Christ as his savior, then we know that Christ went to the cross and died for this person. That is something that would not be possible for us to do. Even if we were willing, there is no way that our death could work as that sacrifice in the same way that Jesus did.

I think it's a difference between giving up and letting go. In my book, I’ve talked about that subject, because giving up implies being defeated, overcome, and conquered. I think that letting go does not have that same implication. Letting go just says, “This person belongs to Jesus Christ, and I am going to put them in His hands. Whatever happens, I just praise Him. I ask Him to realign my attitude and make me submissive to His will, whatever that will means.”

When you get there, then whatever happens, you know that not only is it God's will for it to happen, but the more you realign your will to His, it's also your will. I'd like to say something about that. One of the purposes of suffering, I think, is for our benefit. That may surprise you.

In the example I gave you of my brother, it helped me reach that point, once I saw how he was suffering. So his suffering served a purpose in my life, because it was when I saw the suffering that I could finally let him go, that I could finally say, “Lord, take him and be merciful to him.”

So a lot of times people will come to me and say, “Why is my mom lingering like this? Why doesn't God just go ahead and take her?” And I tell them sometimes that is not mine to say. That is God's domain. I said one of the things I have found is sometimes it is for our benefit because we are finally able to let them go.

Then, just a little bit later, I’ll hear them telling one of their other family members that. They're sharing this information, thinking, and nodding their heads. A lot of times it helps to realize that. Sometimes the purpose of their suffering is to help us to let go.

Nancy: Deborah, dealing with death and dying issues for a vocation as you do day in and day out, isn't that depressing dealing with this all of the time?

Deborah: You'd think it would be, wouldn't you? But actually, I just want to assure your listeners that hospice working is a tremendously rewarding occupation. I became a nurse so that I could make a difference in people's lives. As a hospice nurse, every day when I go home I know I’ve made a real difference in people's lives.

That's pretty heady stuff when you think about it—that God uses you every day to touch people. I have to make it a matter of prayer all of the time that God would use me to help people. People pray that all of the time about themselves and how often do they get to do it though their vocation, to really touch people and help people through such a difficult time?

No, I don’t think that hospice nursing or hospice is depressing. I use humor all of the time with my patients. I try to be very lighthearted with them. I tease them. The last thing that they want is to be treated like a sick person. So I try to teach them like a real person and like a well person. We have a good time. We get to know each other. If they are believers, we get to know each other in the Lord, which is very special.

I think it is a very intimate time in these people's lives. I feel very privileged to be a part of that.

Nancy: I know that there are so many who would say how grateful they are for the role that you and other hospice workers have. I got an email this morning from one of our staff whose wife went home to be with the Lord just a few months ago from Lou Gehrig's Disease. He was sharing with me how much hospice nurses and caregivers meant to his family during the time that his wife was dying, and how they made it possible for him to have an hour here and there where he could go and get some sleep. He could get a nap. He could do something that he didn’t have time to do because he was very available to care for his wife.

Some of the things these nurses were doing were things he could have done and did do in many cases—just their relieving him and being available. In their case their nurse was a Christian, so there was that shared faith and opportunity to minister. He was expressing how grateful he is for the role that the hospice workers had for their lives in that season.

Deborah: One thing that is a real blessing to me is the gratitude of the people. I must say that I have an opportunity a lot to hear them just tell me, “Thank you for being here for us. Thank you for teaching us.” That is so meaningful.

Before I wrote this book, Sunsets, and even during the writing of it, I asked God fervently to be in every word of this book, and to put it into the hands of the people He intends to comfort through it. That has been my prayer from the very beginning. I am gratified when I hear from readers who have said, “This book helped me go through a period of my life, and I wouldn't have been able to do it without it.” It's very gratifying to see how the Lord really has used this book to bless people.

Nancy: The book is called Sunsets. I love the title Sunsets. It's a season of life. It's a time of day in our lives that is appointed to every man to die. You've written a book that has so much practical wisdom and help preparing not only for the death of those that we love, but also for our own death. The subtitle of the book is, Reflections for Life's Final Journey.

You have addressed so many topics in here from a biblical standpoint, from a practical standpoint, lots of helps dealing with the truth about heaven and hell, about angels, about the purposes of God in suffering, the sovereignty of God, where is God in all of this, “why me?” dealing with denial issues. And then, just practical issues that I know if you've not been there before, you don't have any idea what to expect of how to prepare for particularly a slower lingering death that isn't a sudden one.

So thank you for applying your heart and your love for the Word to this subject. I know this is going to be a rich ministry in the lives of many of our listeners.

Leslie: That's Deborah Howard. She's been talking with Nancy Leigh DeMoss about the final seasons of life. They've been referring to the book, Sunsets: Reflections for Life's Final Journey. We'd like to send you a copy. It's our way of saying “thanks” when you donate any amount to the ministry of Revive Our Hearts. Your support makes the program possible, allowing us to be able to bring this kind of conversation on the radio and on the web.

When you call with your gift of any amount, ask for the book Sunsets. The number is 1-800-569-5959, or visit ReviveOurHearts.com. When you visit our website, I hope you'll take the opportunity to interact with Deborah Howard over what you've heard today. She'll be part of the Revive Our Hearts listener blog. If you scroll to the end of today's transcript, you can enter a comment or question, read what others have written, and read Deborah's comments. Again, you can join the discussion at ReviveOurHearts.com.

When you talk with someone facing death, do you ever feel at a loss for words? Tomorrow Deborah Howard will help you know what to do in those situations. I hope you can be back with us next time for Revive Our Hearts.

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

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