Heaven Can Wait: Faith and Unfinished Business at the End of Life
When I graduated from seminary, I was ordained to hospice work as a presbyterian minister. I worked for my local hospice agency for almost four years, a very short time for a hospice worker, but I learned more during those years than any other time in my life, including my years of schooling. I knew at some point the stories would have to be told. There are so many. But this one touched me very deeply, challenged my faith, and humbled me.
I worked primarily as Bereavement Coordinator, making sure that all of our hospice families had the support they needed following the death of their loved one. I also worked as a Spiritual Care Provider, and it was in this role that I met Sherrie. She lived with her sister, Lois, who was her caregiver. I visited once a week for several months, as Sherrie was part of a new palliative care initiative that accepted patients even if they were still receiving treatment. She had congestive heart failure and was having weekly treatments at the hospital to reduce the fluid that was killing her. She had smoked, had been a drinker, and had a very strong and simple faith, that I often envied. She was familiar with the Bible and she and her sister would read from it every day. Invariably, they would have questions for me when I visited.
As I Lay Dying
They started out by asking me about things that were in the news; abortion, the death penalty, being kept alive on life support, cremation, homosexuality. Of course, I didn't have the answers, but I was able to help her begin to see God more and more as gracious and loving, even forgiving. As Sherrie declined, the questions became more pointed and personal. Her questions became ones about suffering, and gradually she told me of her life, the true story of everything she had endured. It was a lot. And it had all begun with the sexual abuse she had endured at her father's hand. Of course, it had affected her entire life. She felt guilt about it, which was fairly easy to counsel. She even talked about forgiveness. He had died years earlier. As she came closer and closer to death, a few things came together for her that she didn't know how to deal with. I didn't either and we had to work it out and pray it out together. Her final question was the hardest. Sherrie could accept that God could forgive her for her sins, which had included a life of substance abuse and sexual promiscuity. But there was a big disconnect for her. If God was forgiving enough to forgive her, then her father could also have been forgiven. Sherrie didn't want to die because for her, heaven, in that case, had become hell.
I Won't Go If He Is Going To Be There
Sherrie and her sister and I prayed about this a lot. We wanted Sherrie to be at peace when death finally came but it ultimately came down to her resisting letting go until she was reassured that her abusive father wasn't going to meet her in the afterlife. I knew that no easy answer I could come up with would help. We studied scripture. We prayed. We sat silently together. She endured. We talked about all of the evidence of God's goodness. We examined Paul's writings on the afterlife and the body. I held her hand. I began to visit her daily and stay longer.
There was a part of Sherrie that had forgiven her father as long as he wasn't around. But there was another part that could not abide him being forgiven by God. She wanted him in Hell and I couldn't blame her. I wanted him in Hell, too, for the things he had done to her, for what he had taken away from her. I began to ask her about her father as a person apart from his abusive behavior.
Sherrie began to tell me of a man who was very well liked in the community. Of course, the community had no idea what he was doing in the privacy of his home. He was a volunteer firefighter, a veteran of WWII, and worked at the nearby factory that most of the town's men worked for. When people in the community needed help, many of them came to him. They knew he would help. He played the banjo and often played and sang for his family, teaching his children many folk songs. He loved to cook big pots of chili. He drove a '57 Chevy and took excellent care of it. These were the good things Sherrie could come up with. I asked her who she thought God had intended him to be. Sherrie didn't answer me for a long time. We had gotten used to extended silences. I knew she was working my question over and over in her mind.
When Sherrie finally spoke again she said that her father could have been a great man. She had only met her grandfather and grandmother, his parents, twice before they died and it was quite obvious that his sickness had come from them. She talked about him, imagining him as a little boy, innocent until he was abused himself, then carrying his altered perceptions into the rest of his life the way she had. She began to feel pity for him. She began to see him as a person who had been persecuted the way she had been. She felt saddened by the loss of who he could have been, and who she could have been. We cried together for a while. Afterward, Sherrie told me that she really felt as though she had forgiven him now and she knew that God saw him as that person he was before abuse changed and corrupted him.
The next day when I visited Sherrie, she was visibly relaxed. She was no longer holding onto life for fear of meeting up with her abuser in heaven. We read Psalm 139 together, which we had done many times, but I knew both of us were thinking of her father this time. Not in the way I knew she had before as she read "Where can I flee from your presence?" and felt that she could never escape her father, even in death. This time she read it as God's promise to him, as well as to her, that God knew their true selves, their fully realized human selves, so well, that nothing was hidden, Then she said something I will never forget.
Sherrie had taken her history of abuse, her own belief that she had been forgiven, her forgiveness and love for her father, her knowledge of God's love and mercy, and she had solved the problem. She told me, "God's forgiveness makes us what we were supposed to be. That may not show all the way in our lives, but in heaven we must be the way God wanted us. We must be good, the way we were made, before everything happened to us to make us wrong."
Sherrie had taught me something about dying, about God, about myself. And two days later I sat by her side as she peacefully slipped away. In those two days I had seen her express great joy; that she would finally know her father as he should have been. Her life long yearning for that would be realized. She was happy. She was ready. I said goodbye to her and read our psalm to her again before she died. I praised God for the transformation of our hearts and minds. I shared some of what had happened with those who attended her funeral and saw other family members begin a healing process that was long overdue. Sherrie's was a good death. I was so proud of her and thankful. Her gift of holy insight has stayed with me as I have ministered in many other situations, and has brought healing, reconciliation, and peace to many. I thank Sherrie and God for that every time. God speed, Sherrie.