An aneurysm ruptures as an 85 y/o woman talks on the phone with her only relative, a niece, 150 miles away. She dies hours later in my Emergency Room. A 40 y/o woman and her 6 y/o child have their passenger side destroyed by a driver running a stoplight. They never make it from the scene.
At times, it seems as though I am (we are) surrounded by death. I joke with my staff and residents to ease the tension, “All of us are dying. Some of us just get moved to the front of the line.” Death is experienced by all of us. Sometimes we look in. Sometimes we endure the loss. Sometimes, we are up. All of us deal with it differently. We all fear the unknown.
My wife worries about something happening to me. Finishing my will seems morbid and is difficult to complete. Though important, I know that when the will is “executed” I will be dead. It is a plan for what I hope won’t happen, at least not any time soon. My parents are essentially my oldest relatives. One by one, my grandparents departed.
“I’m ready to meet my Jesus.” A few nights ago, I prayed with a patient for the first time in a long time. The words proceeded from my mouth jumbled and awkward. It was short and not so eloquent. “Watch over this child of God. Comfort her in her pain. Bring Mrs. H to be with you,” was the gist of it. I had just diagnosed Mrs. H with pancreatic cancer at age 89. She had been trying to get a CT scan for the past several weeks with insurance not approving it because certain tests had not been ordered yet. She showed up in the ED with worsening pain and looking for answers with her daughter. She seemed otherwise content but desiring to know why she continued to have persistent abdominal pain. A CT scan a few hours after her arrival delivered to me the answer, “Pancreatic mass concerning for pancreatic adenocarcinoma with severe dilation of the pancreatic duct.” This diagnosis hits me like a train. As we have been told in medical school and on our surgical rotations, “Don’t mess with the pancreas!” (Using slightly more colorful language typically.) I knew that this was likely a terminal diagnosis. For a 30 or 40 year old, it might be a diagnosis of struggle and a year or two of intense pain before the inevitable death. Or if extra lucky, a longer course with the constant fear of return of the cancer of the “Whipple procedure” (which again is one of the most intense surgeries one can have.) In the face of death, this 89 year old didn’t ask about surgery or how long she had to live or what chemo she could have. She didn’t even ask for more pain medication. After I had explained to her daughters about the mass, she succinctly said, “I’m ready to meet my Jesus.”
I’ve met death many times in my emergency room. Some people fear it fiercely and others, like the 89 y/o woman above, seem relieved. For the Christian, death is a departure. Physical death is the body releasing the soul to be with God. The early church fathers viewed death not as the endpoint but as the beginning. Paul states, “For I am already being poured out as an offering, and the time for me to depart is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith! Finally the crown of righteousness is reserved for me. The Lord, the righteous Judge, will award it to me in that day – and not to me only, but also to all who have set their affection on his appearing.” 2 Tim 4:6-8
Nearly 50 executed in a nightclub. Dozens shot in a theater. Schools seem unsafe. This year freshmen in high school will learn about 9/11 as history. I feel old(er).
For the atheist, death is “the end.” It is nothingness. What does the atheist have to say at your suffering and dying? Is death (and this life) not absurdity and meaningless? “I’m glad it’s you and not me.”
As Christians, do we not have a different outlook? What have we “to fear”? Christ conquered death. For the Christian, spiritual death is put to death by Christ. Spiritual death comes from the fall. Christ, who knew no sin, took on the likeness of sinful flesh and was sinless. Hosea and Paul exclaim, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” 1 Cor 15:55
Our favorite comedians die of overdoses. 5000 abortions happen every day in America. Every day. A prominent and influential Christian writer is diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer. A 28 y/o is on hospice, dying of ovarian cancer. A toddler dies of methamphetamine overdose after he puts a filter paper in his mouth in a rat infested basement while his mother gets a pop with her boyfriend at the local gas station. At times, it seems like death is on every corner and takes the most innocent.
In my emergency room, there is no shortage of those suffering and dying. In some senses, we only prolong the inevitable. I think it would be a grim profession if this was all we did. There is hope. The only place I know of this hope is in Jesus. We fell away from God when we transgressed His Law. Only one command existed at the beginning, “Do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or you will surely die.” We did. It has been separation ever since. Spiritual death reigns over us. The consequence is physical death. HOWEVER, God gave His only Son. Christ died that we should LIVE. Death is not the end. Christ resurrected from the dead. Death is a gateway to eternity with God for all who believe in Jesus. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. John 14:6
For the Christian, death is not to be feared. Death is a reunion with God. We will shed off this body of death and live with Him in eternity. This life is only the beginning. As Paul states, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. Now if I am to go on living in the body, this will mean productive work for me, yet I don’t know which I prefer: I feel torn between the two, because I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far, but it is more vital for your sake that I remain in the body.” Phil 1:22-24
The word “depart” is just like a ship leaving harbor. The journey is just beginning. May we have confidence that Christ paid the price that we may be united with Him. Christ is our forerunner. He has conquered death. We have nothing to fear about death. As my 89 y/o sister said, “I’m ready to meet my Jesus.”