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Reflections on Love at the End of Life

This blog is the third in a series of reflections from the 3rd annual Symposium with Dr. Ira Byock on October 12, 2018, Abundant Aging Through the End of Life.

Julia’s husband had been a Presbyterian minister, who she met at seminary. When I met Julia, I was an undergraduate, and she was in her 90s, aging with faith and clarity about her life’s rootedness in community, history and hope.

Kind Providence

She spoke often of her relationship with Rev. Wilson, her late husband. I will never forget the memory she treasured, of the “kind providence” that Rev. Wilson felt had brought them together. Their love was evidently a big one — love of the kind that shapes surrounding lives into better ones, just by being near it.

A love like that also shapes others in its last stage. Though I am sure the Wilsons’ relationship was imperfect (which, as Symposium speaker Dr. Ira Byock noted, all relationships are) — there was much about Julia’s recollections of their marriage that shaped my values as a young person. As Julia shared her story, I saw ways that, even in approaching death, their love created abundant life.

Coping through Loss

Julia reflected deeply on the time of approaching the loss of her beloved, able to share what had helped her cope. She taught me a favorite prayer — the prayer of St. Francis — and often quoted the Scripture text that sustained her: from Philippians 4:6-7, St. Paul’s wise advice, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

I was struck by their family’s facing of death with courage — which, to be sure, is not the absence of fear, but the facing of it. Her husband, in her recollection, was able to say goodbye in his last conscious days to the family that mattered deeply to him. To his daughter, he could say, “I’m proud of you.” To his wife, he could say, “I love you.”

The Four Things that Matter Most

Ira Byock’s description of his work in hospice care includes reflections on, “The Four Things that Matter Most.” His experience has shown that simply to be able to connect around the simple words that we all need to say and to hear can influence our endings in incredible ways — including those words that Rev. Wilson, Julia and their daughter exchanged, “I love you.” At the end of life, we need the words, “I love you,” “I forgive you,” “I’m proud of you,” and “Thank you.” Many symposium participants were quick to note how much those words mean today, throughout a lifetime, not only at its close.

What does it take to have the courage to face living and dying with such clarity and honesty? How can we live our relationships more fully today? The benefit of knowing the four things that matter most now is that we can start using these words now to improve our relationships. Julia’s life and love impacted mine, inspiring me to pursue similar values before the end, thanks to the clarity that her experiences of loss had offered. And, because of my Presbyterian friends, and through continued inspiration at United Church Homes, I am amazed by the kind Providence that always offers opportunities to love and be loved.

About Emily Howard

Emily HowardEmily recently completed her Master of Divinity degree from the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. She lives in Marion, Ohio, with her cat, Gallagher. Pictured in her choir robe, she will make music at every opportunity, and often does so as a member of First United Church of Christ in Marion. Emily has been learning this year with the Council of Health and Human Service Ministries of the UCC in their CHHSM Scholar program.

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