“What should I do? I know that if I do nothing, he’ll be dead. Yet…I know that he would not want to live his life the way the doctors are telling me. How can I let him die? And yet…how could I let him live?”
And then she added: “What should I do? What would he want me to do?”
When I updated a blog article I wrote last year about the passing of a friend, I realized there was more to say about that episode. His sudden death and my subsequent grief have been shared. But I did not disclose a conversation I had with his wife the day before he died. I saw her in church yesterday and asked if I might share the backstory of his death. She agreed.
Here is the rest of the story.
Her husband had suffered a sudden and catastrophic stroke. Some vessel in his brain burst and he began to bleed internally. Within three hours he was unconscious and unresponsive. He was in his mid-fifties, married for over 30 years, and had one child in college and another in high school.
The doctors were clear: he would never make a full recovery. She was told by the physicians that an operation to stop the bleed could save his. Could. However, the risk of death was very, very high. And he would be quite limited afterwards…if he made it through the surgery. He would not have complete brain function; there was severe damage already. He would not be able to feed himself, clean himself, or speak. He would be in a hospital bed for years to come…but he would be alive. He might be somewhat aware of his surroundings…but he might not.
But, she was told, if they did not operate soon, he would certainly die within 24 hours. His traumatized brain would continue to hemorrhage, putting physical pressure on key areas in skull; his organs would shut down and his life would end. It would be over.
That is when she called me…I was out of town. “What should I do? What would he want me to do?”
I waited a few seconds as I silently prayed for God to give me wisdom. I thought for a moment longer and a pathway appeared in my mind… I cleared my throat, and I spoke. God help me…but I think I gave her sound counsel.
This is what I said to her. (I ask the reader to understand that I was asked a clear question and I knew I needed to respond with a clear answer. I ask also that the reader understand that time was of the essence. My comments, might be perceived as abrupt, but were offered with care and love for a member of my church.)
I said to her, “Please listen very carefully. This is one of those moments we have to think together.
I think you are approaching this the wrong way. You are asking yourself what he would want. In fact, the two of you are united in a Christian marriage. And the bible says that in a marriage, a spiritual and authentic thing happens: two people become one. Jesus affirms this teaching in the Gospels. In fact, the whole trajectory of the bible affirms that marriage is the God-centered covenant between a man and a woman and that they become one; they become one not just in flesh…but one in fact.”
She was quiet.
I asked her if she and her husband understood their marriage relationship to be of ‘one flesh’ in this way. She said, “Yes…we are both Christians and we have a Christian marriage.”
I continued: “I would encourage you to not ask what he would want. But since you are one with him in Christian marriage, the question you can answer is this one: What would you want? Whatever you’d want in this awful situation is what he would want because you are “as one”. You are one…together. You are two people…but for 30 years of Christian marriage, you have been one.
Whatever you would want is what he would want because you are one.”
I stopped and let in the silence before I spoke my final thought. “What would you want?” .
There was a long pause. I heard a sniffle as she drew back her breath…and then she spoke. “That’s easy. I’d want to be with the Lord. That’s so painful to say…because I’ll miss him…but it is the truth. I see that for me…and I can see it for him…”
And then she said, “Wow…it is so clear now. I get it.”
I prayed with her over the phone. She thanked me for my words. She called a meeting with the doctors and decided to forgo any surgical treatment. The nurses let him rest and relax in his bed. He was made comfortable. The family gathered to say good-bye. One of our clergy went to pray over him and anoint him. The bleed continued and within 12 hours he had died.
~ ~ ~
What a frightening privilege and holy honor to be with people at times like this. The weight of these moments drive me to prayer and deeper study…but I am thankful for God’s Word and our church’s robust pastoral theology.
Pastoral theology is the synthesis and application of the knowledge of God through his Word to the real-life circumstances of his people. It is the operational platform for church life. It is hard work. It requires prayer and a personal conviction that God can and will guide his people by his Word and that sometimes God will use his teachers of the Word to do it. It is difficult and arduous work, but it is one of the highest privileges I have.