ON SACRED GROUND
By Paul Riddle
As a hospital chaplain, I am often privileged to stand with patients and their families on the sacred ground that marks the threshold between this life and the Eternal. One afternoon, during my clinical rounds at Methodist Hospital, I was called to the bedside of Son Tran (names and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy), a 45 year-old Vietnamese man dying of cancer. I had visited Son several times during this final illness. He and his family were people of strong Christian faith. Son was on mechanical life support and was in a deep coma.
When I arrived, Son’s wife, Van, two children, and several other family members were present. Van welcomed me, introduced me to the group, and told me that she had decided the time had come to withdraw life support. All of the family were in agreement, and they had gathered to be present at the end.
Son died within minutes after life support was withdrawn. When he breathed his last, Van, who had maintained her composure up to this point, collapsed in a heap, sobbing. Family members helped her onto the couch, and then into a wheelchair. We all withdrew to a private family room while the nursing staff prepared the body for a final viewing – a process that took the better part of an hour.
I spent that hour with the family, and was privileged to watch them support one another as they adjusted to the reality that their loved one had died. 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. Van, 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, Van 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 Son to God’s eternal care.