I lost two friends this week. Both were members of our church whom I’ve had the privilege of knowing and pastoring for a number of years. Both were in their 80s, both left behind many relatives and friends, and both were dearly loved and respected in our community.
They were women of faith who lived through a lot of church changes, were involved in difficult conversations, and would not simply take “no” for an answer. They were diligent in their witness and prayed for their families consistently. They taught me a lot about what it means to live for God and to love all people in all situations. They were encouragers, provokers, and questioners, and I very much enjoyed my visits with them.
But as much as they were similar, they were also unique. They had their own temperaments, and their life experiences told two very different stories. The ways in which they passed away were also different from each other.
Helen was taken to the hospital and found out that her body was failing her. She was in the hospital for about a week, and many people came to see her and say goodbye. She was still alert and full of humour every time I went to visit. We read scripture and prayed a lot together, and we also held communion in her room. After a full, yet sad, time, she passed away in her hospital bed.
Two days before Helen’s funeral, I got a message saying that Karoline passed away. This was not from her family, but someone from our church. I thought it was a mistake, so I rushed to her place and, upon meeting the police at her door, found out it was true. It happened without warning. But what amazed us was that the last message she passed on to our church was an update about her life, in which she requested that the song “It is Well With My Soul” be sung during our service.
In the span of a week, these families and our church had to say goodbye to two wonderful people. Of course they weren’t perfect, but their lives exemplified a life-long walk with God and an outpouring of love for others. And even though the ways in which they passed away were so different from each other, we could confidently say that they both died well.
The reason we are confident is not based of the circumstances of their deaths. Helen was able to say good-bye to her friends and family, Karoline was not. Karoline did not suffer in her dying, but Helen had to endure her organs shutting down. The reason we are confident that they died well is because of how they lived their lives.
Helen and Karoline had many struggles in life, both in relationships and health. They were also both widows, who endured very painful times. And yet, they had a faith and an assurance in God that they were part of His family and that He would take care of them. They knew that death would come at some point, but the hope they had in God’s new life for them outweighed the fear of leaving this earth behind.
They were both content with the time that was given to them and ready to pass into God’s eternal care when the time was right. It was God who gave them peace, and the words of God found in the Bible continued to comfort them until the end. I know this not only because of what they said as they reached their end, but also because of what I heard from them over many years.
They both found freedom and forgiveness in Christ. They knew that because of that, they were living into God’s new kingdom on Earth and were going into God’s eternal kingdom upon death. This kingdom is described to us as a place where God will gather all things to Himself and make it new, eliminating the evil, hate, sickness, and sorrow that are present now. It is a place where all people will come together as one and worship and serve God alone.
That assurance of faith in life was the grace given to both Helen and Karoline in death. That’s what gave us peace and comfort, even while we grieved that they were no longer with us. We too have the confidence that this life isn’t the end, and even though our end will come, it doesn’t come without hope.
I count it a privilege to be involved in funerals and in the last stages of someone’s life. It’s a sacred time, and I always feel the presence of God close in those moments. It also reminds me of my own mortality and the need we have to talk well about death.
Sadly, our society seems to be afraid to talk about death, and we are almost offended by the idea. The funeral directors told me this week that about 30% of the funerals they perform don’t include any kind of service. We want to live longer, experience more, be with our families, and never grow old. We want to focus on happy things and whatever gives us joy. Talking or thinking about death is not on most of our lists.
But if there’s anything I take away from this past week, it’s the example left by Helen and Karoline: that learning how to die well starts by learning how to live well. That should convict us all to focus on what’s most important in life. The most important thing for people of faith is where we are in our relationship with the Creator.
All our money, careers, and material possessions will fade away. We don’t take any of those treasures with us when we die. But Jesus spoke about different kinds of treasures that are focused on the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:19-21). It’s these treasures (the treasures of faith, hope, righteousness, justice, and love) in which we are called to invest. These are the things that will make a difference when the end comes, whatever that end may look like.
Dying well is a gift. I hope that I’ll come to a place of peace when I die. But I won’t wait until I’m laying on my deathbed to decide that it’s time to look for it. The time is right now, because the grace of dying well is found in how we live each moment. The way to find peace in death is to find it in life. And I’m convinced that search begins with God and the new, eternal, transforming life that He offers. My hope for you is that you would start your search too and that we would journey deeper and deeper into relationship with God.