By Paul Riddle
Some time ago I ministered to a Vietnamese-American man in his mid-40’s who was dying of cancer. I’ll call him Binh, though that’s not his real name. As Binh’s illness progressed, he lapsed into a coma, and my ministry focus turned to his wife, Anh (also not her real name), who was constantly at his side. One afternoon during my visitation rounds I walked onto the intensive care unit where Binh had been for nearly a month. The nurse told me Anh wanted to see me. When I entered the room, Anh, their two teen-aged children, and several other family members were present.
Anh welcomed me, introduced me to the group, and brought me up to date on the situation. She and the rest of the family had come to terms with the reality that Binh was not going to get any better and that maintaining him on life support was futile. Anh had decided the time had come to withdraw mechanical life support. All of the family were in agreement, and they had gathered for a final meeting with doctors and nursing staff, and to be present when life support was withdrawn and the patient died.
Binh died within minutes after mechanical support was withdrawn. When he breathed his last, Anh, who despite her exhaustion had maintained her composure up to this point, collapsed in a heap, sobbing and wailing. Family members helped her onto the couch, and then into a wheelchair. We all withdrew to a private family room while the nursing staff cleaned up the body and prepared it for a final viewing – a process that took the better part of an hour.
I spent that hour with the family, and was amazed and humbled at the healthy support they gave one another as they adjusted to the reality of Binh’s death. The first few minutes, everyone was in shock, and there was little conversation, just weeping and hugging. Slowly, the tears dried, and people began to talk. Most of the conversation was in Vietnamese, so mainly what I observed was body language. What struck me was how over that hour the family seemed to come back to life after having been cut down by their loved one’s death.
The progression was very clear: shock, weeping, supportive conversation, discussion of details (funeral arrangements, etc.), reminiscing about the deceased, and finally more relaxed conversation and laughter. Anh, who at the beginning of the hour was curled up in the wheelchair almost in a fetal position, gradually unwound, assumed a normal sitting posture, listened with increasing attention to the conversation, began to participate in the conversation, and, by the end of the hour, was able to actually to laugh at an amusing remark made by a family member.
At long last the body was ready. We returned to the room, Anh now walking under her own power. She caressed her husband’s face and kissed it tenderly, an expression of peace on her face. At her request, I offered a prayer, commending Binh to God’s eternal care.