When you don’t get angels and butterflies

Last week, in “Angels and Butterflies,” I wrote about the very positive experience my mom and I had during her end-of-life journey. I cried through the writing and editing of that post, and breathed a sigh of relief when I hit the send button. It was something I felt God wanted me to share, and it had been on my mind since the time he’d impressed it upon my heart.

But later that day, as I was standing in Sam’s Club staring through my mask-fogged glasses into the frozen foods case at the fruit bars I planned to add to my cart, anxiety began to creep in.

What about those who didn’t have such a positive experience with a loved one at end of life? How would my post affect them?

Since my aim is always to encourage, I’ve felt led to address that topic this week.

There could be many factors that play into such a scenario—mistakes we believe we’ve made in a caregiving role; the inability to be present with a loved one at end of life; a broken relationship with a loved one who has died; or a fear that a loved one didn’t know the Lord. Of course, other factors may be pertinent too, but today I’d like to talk about those four.

This post is a little longer than usual, but I think it’s important to cover everything in one fell swoop instead of stringing things out in a series.

Mistakes we believe we’ve made in a caregiving role.

We all make mistakes where our loved ones are concerned—and they would likely say the same.

This may be especially true for those who’ve been family caregivers in some way, since there is more opportunity to do so. With a desire to get everything perfectly right—which is an absurdly unrealistic thought—caregivers may experience regret regarding self-perceived mistakes.

In the midst of our peaceful, fully-rested, after-the-fact lives, it can be easy to look back and cite the things we wish we would’ve done differently—which is something I’ve done, too. Fortunately, I know without a doubt that Mom knew how much I loved her and that I was doing my very best at any given time—and I’d be willing to bet the same is true for you and your loved one, as well.

Still, I was grateful to know that the second Mom left this world and stepped into her eternal Home, everything was perfect for her and would remain forever so.

Negative emotions of any kind don’t exist in Heaven—which is why those who remain shouldn’t hang onto regrets as if they do. If there are lessons within your experiences from which you can find value, then embrace them as such. But remember your loved one in Heaven isn’t dwelling on the past—and neither should you.

If you regret something you did or didn’t do, I want to encourage you to find a way to address it so you can begin to let go. If you need help with that process, I encourage you to ask God to provide it—which may include seeking support from a trusted friend or family member; or a professional—such as a pastor or counselor—who can provide resources to help you heal.

The inability to be present with a loved one at end of life.

In my years of working with the dying as a hospice nurse, I developed some pretty firm opinions about the moment of death: that we may not know exactly what an individual needs at end of life and that perhaps whoever is “supposed” to be present will be there.

I say that based strictly on the anecdotal evidence of witnessing this dynamic repeatedly. I remember one particular patient I was with for whom this seemed to be true.

The man’s family had held vigil at his bedside for days on end, fearing they wouldn’t be there for him at the moment of his death. They were somewhat puzzled by the fact that he couldn’t seem to let go of life here, and tried to figure out why. But when they all left together to attend to something in the next room, the man finally took his last breath.

That was a powerful lesson for me that each person’s needs are different at end of life—and we can’t assume we know what they are. Some may not want or need family present at the moment of death, and there could be a variety of reasons for that. Two that come to mind are that goodbyes are hard for the dying, too—and that the process of leaving this world may be a very private affair.

On the other hand, I’ve also cared for patients who seemed to wait for a loved one to arrive or a certain event to occur before they could release themselves to death. It’s hard to know if that was actually the case—since I don’t know if we have that much control at end of life, and I believe what the Bible says about God’s role in such things.

Either way, my experiences have informed my sense that each person will do what they need to do during their final hours—and that the quality of relationships with loved ones over a lifetime may be what they’re relishing most at this time, whether a loved one can be there or not.

This thought has helped me resolve the angst I’ve felt in the era of COVID-19, when so many in-hospital deaths have occurred and are occurring without the possibility of loved ones being physically present.

Being there when a loved one is dying can certainly be a wonderful thing. But if that’s not possible for some reason, I’m willing to bet the dying understand and are savoring the lifetime of love they experienced in their cherished relationships prior to that time.

A broken relationship with a loved one who has died.

If things weren’t good with a loved one while they were on earth, it can be painful to carry the burden of not healing that relationship before they died. There are more variables in that equation than I can shake a stick at, so I’m not going to try to address them here.

But what I do want to say is that even if a loved one has died in the midst of a broken relationship, healing is still possible for those who remain.

If that’s the case for you, then I encourage you to seek ways to accomplish this, since there’s no benefit to churning within negative feelings toward someone who’s no longer here. I’m not a counselor or mental health professional, so my disclaimer is that these thoughts are strictly my own—but steps toward healing may include some of these things:

  • Start with prayer. Talk to God about the situation and ask for his help to heal the hurt within. This may include feelings of anger, resentment, regret, or any number of negative emotions that may be weighing you down.
  • Talk to someone. Being alone with our pain is never a good idea. Find someone you trust who can provide the support you need as you work through your feelings. That may be a friend, a faith leader, a professional counselor, or a family member. Just remember that other family members may be dealing with their own difficult feelings and may not be able to provide the objective support you need.
  • Write a letter to your loved one. I’m a big believer in expressing feelings through the writing process. In a letter to your loved one you can say all you wished you’d said while they were still here. If you’re concerned about privacy, you can shred paper editions when you’re done—and remember that anything you store in an online cloud account could pose a privacy risk, so be thoughtful about where you keep your stuff.
  • Embrace other types of healing rituals. That may include rituals that help you release your feelings in one way or another—like the creation of a special place where you can talk out loud to your loved one. Once you start, you may be surprised to hear how much you have to say.
  • Do all this with support. Yes, that’s in the same category of talking with someone else, but I can’t stress enough the importance of allowing others to help you with your pain. God didn’t create us to do life alone, and this may be an especially tender spot in which you need more help.

Fear that a loved one didn’t know the Lord.

As a Christian, I believe that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is necessary to spend eternity in Heaven. That’s not about judging others, but embracing and sharing what our holy and loving God did for us to make a relationship with him possible.

After all, if I believed that everyone will end up in Heaven regardless—Jesus or no Jesus—then I might as well toss my beloved Bible, close down my Bibles & Bathrobes™ devotional ministry, and return to the generic spirituality I once wandered into.

If we can get to Heaven without Jesus, then all that was done—God loving us enough to come to earth in such a lowly form; and then Jesus being tortured, crucified, and raised to life—was all done in vain and Christianity is through.

Since I don’t believe any of that is true—but that we need the saving grace that Jesus provides to spend eternity with him—what about those who’ve died who didn’t appear to know the Lord? Does that mean they didn’t make it to Heaven and we’ll never see them again?

A premise of my upcoming novel, Final Moment, is that we don’t know everything that happens in the spiritual realm around the time of death.

We don’t know what kinds of pleas for mercy or last-second chances or divine interventions may be taking place—which is why I ended up in tears so often while reading Imagine Heaven, by John Burke. Burke’s book is an extensive volume of real-life accounts of individuals who were in the grip of death and brought back to life.

While all the stories there are powerful, those from individuals who described facing death without a relationship with Jesus affected me most. In their darkest moments, when they realized the direness of their plight and called out to Jesus—he responded with incredible love and divine intervention.

The Bible says God doesn’t want anyone to perish but wants everyone to have a relationship with him. If this is true—and I believe it is—then he’s likely willing to do what’s needed to save a pliable soul, even if that happens at the very last invisible second.

So, even if you fear that a loved didn’t know the Lord at the time of death, there may be more to the story than you are aware of. Things may have occurred in unseen spiritual realms that will provide a pleasant surprise when it’s your time to go Home.

Fear that you don’t know the Lord and won’t get to be with a loved one who did.

If you worry about your own salvation and that you won’t get to spend eternity with loved ones in Heaven, there’s certainly something you can do about that now.

If you don’t have a relationship with Jesus and want to find out more, I’d love to talk with you. Please contact me and we’ll find a time to do just that.

If you want to do a little research on your own first, I have a “For Skeptics” section on my Resources for Spiritual Growth page.

Potential treasures to be found.

Even if you didn’t have a positive experience with your loved one at end of life, I bet there are still treasures to be discovered. It may take some effort on your part, but the blessings you receive as a result will likely be worth it.

If you’d like talk about that more, I’d love to hear from you. Please contact me so we can connect.

Feature photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash.

Sue Montgomery is a Christian writer/content creator who's also been a hospice nurse, family caregiver, health coach, and professional organizer. Now she's helping Baby Boomers like herself embrace the Boomer Continuum™ of agile caregiving, graceful aging, and peaceful dying—with Christian faith and simplicity to focus on what matters most.
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