Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

September 18, 2011


How do you say goodbye to a dying friend?


     The older I get the more I realize how little I know. There are so many things nobody ever told me about. For example, how do you tell a dying friend goodbye? During the past decade I have had to do that several times. Each time I felt I was flying by the seat of my pants.

     I remember how strangely uncomfortable I felt standing beside the hospital bed of my dying sister, then my wife’s sister, then my father, and later my mother. Though a preacher is something of a wordsmith, I usually struggled to know what to say – to either family members or the person dying.

     It is not enough to hide behind such ideas as “silence is golden” or “just being present is enough.” Some are content to say nothing and assume that “the ministry of presence” is sufficient. Though all that is true, I long to come up with words – at least a few words – that comfort, encourage, and inspire faith. If I were the person dying I believe I would want my family and friends to say something that would bless me, and not just stand by with their hands in their pockets waiting for me to take my last breath.

     Of course there are some people who do not have my problem. They never stop talking. Their loquaciousness makes me want to scream. And it seems even worse if the wordy person is quoting scripture and trying to get someone “saved” in their last hour. I think the time for such earnest pleading is probably past but then, who am I to judge?

     I am big on holding hands. I spent hours holding the hands of dying family members and friends. Occasionally I spoke of times past, of joyous memories we shared, but later I felt much regret. I regretted that I did not, for example, tell my dad and my mother how much they had meant to me, how grateful I was for the lessons they taught me and the examples they were for me.

     Shirley and Al called one day from Alaska. After a few pleasantries Al’s voice broke as he told us that Shirley had only a few more weeks to live. At that moment we realized she had called to tell us goodbye. Her faith was strong. She assured us she was at peace with God and would be waiting for us on the other side. But, honestly, words failed me. I finally told Shirley I loved her and that her friendship had blessed my life. Perhaps that was enough. Shirley died in less than a month.

     A year or so later the phone rang again. Now it was Al’s turn to say goodbye. “I have terminal cancer,” he said softly, “and my doctor says I don’t have much time left.” Again my words were few. Al had been one of my dearest friends. He had meant so much to me for nearly 40 years. I should have told him that, but the words never came from my lips. I did tell Al that I knew his faith would see him through to the end and that I was sure we would see each other again. After word came that Al had died, I thought of so many things I wished I had said to him.

     This week a letter came from another dear friend. The envelope was blue with snowflakes on it. She began her letter with these words, “Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year.” Not what one would expect from a letter dated September 13. I read on, “I am sending this greeting early because if I wait, it may be too late. My pancreatic cancer is spreading and my time is not.”

     Tears kept me from reading the next lines for a moment. Then I almost laughed as her faith jumped off the page. She said, “The good news is that I am not in pain, I feel great, and I am enjoying living with my daughter and her family.”  About this she threw in a happy “Hooray!”

     She closed by saying “My time is short. However, it is a happy time and I thank you for being my friend. Happy Holidays!”

     The next day my wife and I both wrote her a letter and mailed them immediately. What do you say? Well, we thanked her for her marvelous faith, her wonderful friendship, and the precious ways she had been a blessing to us. We thanked her for the memories, especially those of times when her contagious laughter had blessed us so. Her laughter triggered more moments of joy in my heart than anyone I have ever known. She was genuine to the core and always full of the joy of the Lord.

     This dear friend’s bold announcement of her impending death may have freed me to think of creative, inspiring words to share with a dying friend. I hope so. I do want to do a better job of saying goodbye to the next dying friend who calls me. Until then my prayer will be simple: Lord, help me know what to say, how to say it helpfully, and not to say too much.  + + +