Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

November 1, 2020


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. 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 like 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. I struggled to know what to say – to either family members or the person dying.

            It seems cowardly to hide behind cliches like “silence is golden” or “just being present is enough.” I know some are content to say nothing and assume that “the ministry of presence” is sufficient. That may be true but I still long to come up with at least a few words that might comfort, encourage and inspire faith. When I am the one dying, I hope my family and friends will say something to bless me, and not just stand by with their hands in their pockets waiting for me to take my last breath.

            Some loquacious people do not have my problem. And their ceaseless talking makes me want to scream. I confess that it troubles me to encounter a talkative friend or relative quoting scripture and trying to get someone saved in their last hour. I think the time for such pleading is probably past, but then, who am I to judge?

            I am big on holding hands. I have spent hours holding the hand of dying family members and friends. Occasionally I spoke of times past, of joyous memories we shared, but later I felt regret. For example, I still regret not telling my dad and my mother how grateful I was for the lessons they taught me and the examples they were for me.

            One lovely spring day Shirley and Al called from Alaska. After a few pleasantries, Al’s voice broke as he began telling us that Shirley had only a few weeks to live. At that moment, I realized they were calling to tell us goodbye. Shirley’s faith was strong. She assured us she was at peace with God and would be waiting for us on the other side. But words failed me. Finally, I was able to tell Shirley I loved her and that her friendship had blessed my life. Was that enough? I don’t know. Shirley died in less than a month.

            Two years 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, words seemed caught in my throat. Al had been one of my dearest friends for forty years. I should have told him how much he had meant to me but the words never came from my lips. I did manage to tell Al that his strong faith would see him through to the end and that I was sure we would see each other again. A few weeks later word came that Al had died and I thought of so many things I wished I had said to him.

            In the mail one day was a letter from a dear friend in Pensacola. The envelope was blue with snowflakes on it. Inside, the letter was dated September 13 but Irene’s greeting was strange. She began by writing, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!” Not exactly what you would expect from a letter written in mid-September. 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 hindered my reading the next lines for a moment. Then I almost laughed as Irene’s 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.” Then she scribbled a bold “HOORAY!” Her letter ended with these words: “My time is short. However, it is a happy time and I thank you for being my friends. Happy Holidays! See you over there!”

            Immediately my wife and I both wrote Irene a letter and mailed them the next day. 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 us in stitches. Over the years her laughter had triggered so many moments of joy in our hearts. She was genuine to the core and always full of the joy of the Lord.

            But guess what? Irene died the day before our letters arrived! I had finally gotten some words together to share with a dying friend – but they arrived too late. So, you can understand why I want to do a better job of saying goodbye to the next dying friend who calls me for a final conversation.

            Until then, my prayer will be simple: “Lord, help me know what to say and how to say it helpfully. And please, Lord, do save me from saying too much!” + + +