How to Tell Your Dad He’s Going to Die: Ancient Christian Prayer as a Model for Saying Goodbye
After fifteen months of my dad’s rapid decline from ALS, I finally got the phone call I dreaded. My stepmother gave me the news that my dad’s organs were failing; the head hospice nurse thought he had only a few days. I bought a plane ticket for the next morning and prayed about what I would do and say to help my father have a good ending. Dad and I had a complicated relationship due to his long-time struggle with alcoholism and past history of abusive behaviors, but he had found balance in his last six or seven years; we had found peace.
Still, I knew that I would carry a burden of memories into his death room, for him and for me. I was the one who had been sober when he had gone on drunken rages decades before, and I would have to find a way to hold those truths in love. With my background in church history and the prayers of lots of friends, I knew I wouldn’t have to work alone. One of the comforts of the Christian tradition is that we never pray alone. I knew that, as the end of my dad’s days drew near, Christians all over the world would be praying.
Perhaps that sense of worldwide community was what opened me to remember the penitential codes from the early and medieval church in those hours while I prepared to go and help my dad die in peace. Christian communities used to have standard practices for how a Christian should repent when they had fallen into serious sins (violence, sexual misconduct, mistreating the poor). Most serious sins required that the person who was repenting – the penitent – be excluded from the most intimate parts of the church services, when the faithful met God in communion. But there was always an exception when someone was on his or her deathbed. Then the community would go to the sick one and extend the forgiveness and full fellowship to them again by giving them communion. The Body and Blood of Christ given in communion was called “the medicine of immortality.” It healed the soul even when the body of the penitent died. It healed the community even when a member was parted from them in death.
I’m not a priest, so I could not take Dad communion, but I could bring him forgiveness and love. As I prayed for guidance, I started recalling the traditional prayers of evening time from the services of Evensong and Compline, with their themes of revelation, welcome, forgiveness, gratitude, protection, light and rest. Evening prayers are always a kind of homecoming, the rekindling of the light of Christ in the faces of our loved ones as we light the evening candles. They remind us that all light harkens to the joyous light of God in the face of Christ, who came as light to the world. I realized that evening prayers provided the perfect model for saying goodbye.
Most of the Christian story unfolds at night. A gentle baby was born in a stable under a star, a tomb became a place of life in the hours before dawn, and it was at night that the women went quietly forth to anoint Jesus’ body. The first night with my dad, while he was still responsive, I felt the keen closeness of the God who is not afraid to work in the dark. Through singing, praying, and simple presence, I hoped to be a means for God’s grace to be made evident in that precious time near death.
I started on the subject of food. I did not have the holy bread and wine of Communion, but I had a fragrant loaf of brioche, the best-smelling bread I could find. Dad was long past eating by then, but he had always loved food. Mindful of those earlier Christians who set out to heal the penitent at the end, I brought the bread to my dad.
“Smell this,” I said, and I waited till he raised his eyebrows in appreciation. I told him a little about the bread. Then I told him why I brought it. “When the children ask me about what will happen to Grandpa Tony when he dies, I tell them about bread.” Dad frowned in that way that dying people do; they show the grief of leaving. “I know you don’t want to go, Dad, but it’s almost time.” I told him what other relatives had kept from him, but that he must have suspected. His organs were failing, and he was coming to the end. “The reason I tell the children about bread is because Jesus is the bread of heaven. That means you can feast on the presence of God here while we’re still dying, and you won’t be separated from that presence when you die. The bread of heaven connects all of us Christians across time and space, and we will always be together when we eat it.” I told him that the one thing I was sure of with God, is that He never leaves us alone. Then it was time to do the work I had come to do.
“Dad, I know you grew up with people asking you all the time, ‘If you died today, would you go to heaven?’ and sometimes they used that as a way to imply that you were not a very lovable person. You may not die today, but you will soon, so I’m going to tell you why I brought this bread to you. It’s because heaven has come to you. You don’t have to go to God, because he came to you. He loves you, and I love you, and you are forgiven.” Dad was out of time for avoiding sticky questions, so I plunged right ahead. I named some of the bad things he’d done, some of the experiences that had caused him shame or regret. I’ll not repeat them here, as they have already been sanctified to their final purpose and do not bear repeating for a holy reason. What’s important is what I was moved next to say: “I know you may still feel guilty for some of these things, or that the way people have talked to you about God might have given you the impression that you are going to hell for them. But here’s the secret, Dad: when your soul gets weighed out for justice, there’s a thumb on the scales. The love and forgiveness of God are so huge that there’s nothing they can’t outweigh.”
I told Dad about the parable in the Bible of the pearl of great price, and how the early Christians understood it to mean that God sees us as the pearl. He gave everything to be with us, and the love of God would cover any distance to hold onto my dad right where he was, dead or alive.
I spent the next little while naming the good things Dad had done. I talked about how he had four grown children, seven grandchildren, how he had done his best, and we knew that. Then I told him stories about good times we had together and about the way I live differently because of the skills I learned from him. Over the next days, we who kept watch also thanked God for my dad’s life and even for the painful privilege of being with him as he passed.
My sister Alyssa, who is a Christian education director at a Catholic parish, brought holy water to sprinkle Dad. I brought some blessed oil given to my husband by an Orthodox monk to anoint his head and hands and feet. We held his hands in ours. With those outward symbols of God’s love and blessing, we prayed for him prayers of blessing and protection from our traditions (Catholic and Episcopalian). The heart of what we prayed for him was from the broad tradition of Christianity – Psalm 139, lines from hymns. We were the women preparing his body for burial, and we were the angels singing him home.
Rest and Light
The next day, my Dad began to drift away. He stopped responding, but we knew he could still hear us. We sang every hymn we could remember that talked about God’s mercy and love. When our memories failed, we consulted online hymnals. We sang all the verses of the great old hymns. That night, before I left to go to my hotel, I sang the spiritual, “Steal Away to Jesus.”
Dad had a seizure a couple of hours later. The next day, he lay still but for the ventilator-assisted breathing, his body hot with fever, his pupils fixed and dilated. The family began to accept that it was time to let him go. I sang him big songs, loud arias, and sat with him and my sister in long stretches of quiet. In the afternoon, when the late sun came into his bedroom window, I opened the blinds. By their light, I sang out the words that had been my informal guide all along, the words of the Compline service which are meant to be prayed just before sleep. The name for Compline comes from the Latin for lying down. I knew this was my dad’s last Compline, his last lying down. I looked up the ancient evening hymn Phos Hilaron – O Gladsome Light – from the Eastern Christian Church and sang it into the prayers. I added the evening hymn Te Lucis Ante Terminum – To You Before the Close of Day – from the Western Christian Church and sang it into the prayers. I added a section of prayers from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer that are meant to be prayed at the time of death. I wanted Dad to feel the embrace of the church in its Western and Eastern arms as he passed from the world. The final antiphon of Compline is one of simple beauty. Tears streamed down my face as I sang it in the golden light. “Guide us waking, o Lord, and guard us sleeping, that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace. Alleluia.”
In the quiet that followed, I watched by Dad’s bedside. I remembered all the stories about the deaths of saints that I read in the course of taking three degrees in religious studies and church history and theology. Saintly deaths usually told out in beautiful visions and holy final words, in acts of creative beauty in the world around them. This was a quiet death of a man who believed in Christ but had not gotten everything figured out before the end. He, like many who approach death on a ventilator, was silent. But as I watched Dad’s chest rise and fall with each puff from the machine, I saw that his death had the essential part in common with the deaths of Saints writ large. He was the recipient, like they, of big grace. The same grace of God extends to big sinners as for big saints. Dad would go into his rest in peace because of that grace.
That night, Dad died just like the songs suggested. He stole away. When we came to his side within an hour after his passing, my sister and I prayed a final prayer of release and blessing. Family who could come, came to say goodbye then. A nurse practitioner came to declare him officially dead. My stepmother spent a few minutes alone with Dad. The funeral home came to take him for preparation. We began to do the work of grief.
Dad’s last months were painful and hard. His history was checkered, his family not always in agreement. But the leave-taking was peaceful in the way one says goodbye to light at the end of any prayerful day. Food is remembered but put away till morning. The light is banked in our hearts. The love of God embraces us like a good rest after a long, long day.
I hope that my experience of saying goodbye to my dad through the model of the old evening prayers of the church might help others find a way to peaceful leave-taking. If you are called to a loved one’s deathbed, you might not be able to gather a collection of hymnals and prayer books to take with you. But you can use these online resources to help you focus your time around the themes of evening prayer – Revelation, Welcome, Forgiveness, Gratitude, Protection, Light, and Rest. Most hymnals have a section for evening worship, and some have a section devoted to evening prayers. Above all, I hope you take with you an awareness of the unrelenting grace of God who is not afraid of the dark and the prayers of Christians the world over who never cease to pray. My prayers for you will be among them.
The prayers we used for a model:
Online Book of Common Prayer [www.bcponline.org] – Click Daily Office, then Click “An Order for Compline”
Online hymnal resource that you can use from a smart phone:
Hymnary.org [www.hymnary.org] has many of the most used hymnals in different U.S. denominations, including The United Methodist Hymnal and the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, both of which include evening prayers along with hymns.
Some Evening and Big Grace Hymns:
Abide With Me; O Gladsome Light (O Gracious Light); To You Before the Close of Day; Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown; Amazing Grace; Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand; Jesus, Lover of My Soul; O, the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus; The King of Love My Shepherd Is; My Shepherd Shall Supply My Need; I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say; How Great Thou Art; Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing; Steal Away to Jesus.
Summer Kinard holds a B.A. in Religion from Southwestern University and an M.Div. (2003) and Th.M. (Early church history and Theology, 2005) from Duke University Divinity School. Her zany debut novel, Can’t Buy Me Love (Light Messages, 2013), is a story of God’s healing in the life of a lovelorn dumpster diver. She homeschools, writes, and prays in Durham, North Carolina, with her iconographer husband and children.
I originally developed this post for a publication, but it was not Evangelical enough for that audience. I offer it here in hope that our time of hopeful grief will help others saying goodbye to a terminally ill loved one, dealing with complicated relationships, or wanting to find a Christian framework for the hard work of parting.