“She will throw you out!” warned the nurse as I arrived to make my initial visit.
As a hospice chaplain, I encounter many terminal patients who have spiritual pain. Gratefully, I was not thrown out of Mrs. Hope Deferred’s room, but she did shake her fist as I introduced myself. Not at me, but at “her God” whom she thought sent me. Her husband welcomed care for his dying wife and as the visit continued, I not only began to connect with Hope, more importantly, I started to understand her.
Her husband explained, “She was not always angry. When we married in 1940, we couldn’t have children. Finally, after getting pregnant, we were filled with joy. However, the country doctor could not get to our farm due to a winter storm and our first daughter died of complications.” He paused and then said, “I never thought I would have to make a wooden box to bury my newborn girl on her birthday.”
Before I could convey condolences, his story continued, “We were excited when my wife was ‘expecting’ again. But our second daughter died 10 days after birth due to a rare illness.” I gasped and before I could exhale, his tragic tale concluded with, “By the third time my wife was ‘with child’, I made the last wooden box early because she was already on bed rest by 7 months. Our third daughter was born premature and died at birth.” He told me if I visited the back hills of Pennsylvania, I would find 3 wooden crosses where he laid to rest his “baby girls.”
Hope had every right to be angry and to choose how and to whom to direct her emotion. Hope did not blame the winter storm, the country doctor, or her husband (few marriages survive the death of one child, but surviving three unimaginable losses is a miracle by itself).
Most importantly, Hope did not blame herself and what she thought she could have done or not done differently. She would have emotionally died and lost herself in that wrongly assigned blame. Hope was angry, because she was immeasurably hurting. Proverbs 13:12 brings revelation: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”
The good news of this true tale is that Hope used that anger at God to drive herself, literally, to go to nursing school and eventually work in a birthing unit of a hospital so she could care for, hold once again, and feed with an eye dropper, premature babies so they could live and their parents would never lose hope.
Addressing Spiritual Pain and Anger before Death
Care providers need to understand that Spiritual Pain:
- affects persons who are spiritual, religious, or non-spiritual, non-religious.
- includes varying degrees of discomfort or suffering in one inner being/spirit that: a) are triggered by radical change, physical pain or shortness of life for oneself or others, and b) asks questions on meaning of life (“Why am I here?”), suffering (“Why is there pain, suffering, evil?”), and God (“Why did God allow this?”).
- produces anger, fear, hopelessness, as well as self-discovery, a quest for truth, meaning, and deeper relationships which can lead to hope, health and strength.
- asks questions that are answerable and unanswerable.
- seeks to find a responsible party (God, others, unknown causes, self).
Because of Hope’s story, I have learned that being angry at God can have some positives:
- Evidence of belief in God or a Higher Power (Hope could not be angry at someone she did not believe existed).
- It shows a “relationship” (in the past or currently) and expectations of love, kindness, goodness (Hope expected the God whom she knew and related with to help, intervene and powerfully act for her and her daughters’ good).
- Trusts in One who is ultimately responsible (Hope did not blame herself or others, but placed ultimate responsibility on her Higher Power).
- Reveals the transparency to admit feelings and ability to face the truth or want answers (Honesty with God may encourage honesty with loved ones).
Emotion is good and better than no emotion, apathy, or deadness of faith, because it shows that the one questioning still has a spiritual pulse.
How can we help those who are angry at God before death?
What Not to Do:
- Don’t judge – even though assignment of blame may be misplaced or show lack of personal ownership for cause.
- Don’t get into theological or philosophical debate.
What to Do:
- Affirm honesty.
- Admit not knowing “the why,” not having all of the answers, and not understanding the mind or ways of God.
- Not based on what the care provider believes, but based on the questioning one’s beliefs, the care provider can remind them who God is and will be today and tomorrow based on the questioning one’s faith tradition, Scripture/Holy Writings, and truths passed on to them from former generations. This requires the freedom to choose to believe or not believe and the risk of trusting again by the one questioning God.
Being angry at God requires trust from both the one questioning and also the care provider to allow God to answer that question and reveal who God truly is in God’s way and in God’s time.
Hope was mad at God her entire adult life until the day she died. Her husband, church pastor, and hospice chaplain could not change her. The depth of her anger before death actually showed the height of how much she truly loved, not hated, her God.
Hope’s husband requested that I be present at the time of her death. She looked beyond me as she began to breathe her last breath. I knew she was seeing something she waited a lifetime to see. I said, “Do you see your three daughters?” She smiled and tears filled her eyes. I said, “Go to them.” Moments later she did. No longer angry, finally at peace, and now filled with unending joy.
Rev. Mark Telepak
Chaplain/Spiritual Care Coordinator
Crossroads Hospice & Palliative Care
Crossroads Hospice & Palliative Care provides whole-patient care at end of life, addressing each individual’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. For more information on how hospice can help, please call 1-888-564-3405.
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