Elderly couple

Living With A Dying Parent

In preparing for ministry, one of our ordered tasks is to care for the aged and the dying. Over the thirty years I have pastored, I have shared in this journey with many families. It has its emotional costs, but as I have recently learned, the costs when it involves your own parents can be especially heart rending.

In April, I was called to help shepherd my dying father into eternity. I’m not sure anyone is really prepared for this. On the way to be with him, I read a chapter by Anthony Robinson (“It’s About God, Stupid”, Pastoral Work, ed. Byassee, Owens). Little did I realize how critical this chapter would be in preparing me. It pointed my heart to a most centering text:

“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day; and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” Mark 4:26-29

There is this role we play, this role I am pretty good at playing. No, really good at playing. We cast seed. We put possibilities into play. I came to San Diego under the assumption my dad had one, maybe two more days before death would have its way. But after life supports were removed, dad moved from the edge of death back to life. We knew it was dad’s wishes, as it is ours, not to extend dying. But life has these odd turns. I’ve been here before with dying people. Death often defies prediction.

Elderly coupleSometimes we find ourselves in a sort of tug of war with a medical establishment seemingly determined to do whatever heroic measures are necessary to sustain life. It’s their Hippocratic Oath. In the case of my father, we made it clear we are not materialists clinging to life on this earth at any price (and it does cost!). We have a deep faith. We know there is life on the other side, and it is far better. Our theology tells us it is okay to let go—we are in Somalia with the plane on the tarmac headed for Hawaii—only far superior to this. This is life with Jesus.

But while all of us, my mom and sister and extended family, labored to ensure death is not unnecessarily extended, it was (and is) not ours to accelerate death. Through all of this, I was this busy farmer, putting possibilities into play (ask the nurses and doctors I encountered). I had to deal with a hospital that at times was brilliant, and at times inept. For several days I had to clarify wishes with doctors, run between hospital floors asking why one medical team had not communicated with the other. We left clear instructions to only provide palliative care, only to come back and find people ordering x-rays and menus. But we had to make sure we were not trying to play God, seeking for something akin to euthanasia.

Like others I have ministered to, I came to the hospital to say good bye, only to find my dad far more alert than I anticipated. I was in conversations with funeral directors in the morning, making the necessary arrangements for the body’s disposal; in the afternoon, I found myself conversing with hospice workers, hoping to find a future bed once dad left the hospital. After hearing the doctor say my dad will not get better, I found it necessary to monitor the hall, intercepting well-meaning visitors and asking them not to tell dad, “Hey Paul, we are praying you get strong again. You are looking good. In no time, you will be back playing cards and having fun.”

At the end of these roller coaster days, running and managing and hoping to keep some control, I would return to my sister’s home emotionally numb, knowing I have no control at all. Pastors (and sons) have to learn this all of the time. I sometimes came to my end with God and would ask—“What are You doing!!?” (I added the exclamation marks to give clues as to how I asked). I informed Him of our wishes, and at times, God seemed more difficult to deal with than the hospital, more difficult to track down than the doctor. Sometimes it seemed we were more concerned with our timing than God’s. Why does God extend these things? Why does He seemingly shut the body down, only to breathe back new life? Why is He putting me through this? Am I supposed to be learning something? (Short answer-yes.)

In one of the more bizarre moments, after again informing medical professionals that their procedures were counterproductive, a nurse stepped in and announced—”I understand you want antibiotics and sugar drips, and everything else to stop.” And then she pulled the plug. All of this whiles my dad and I were in a deep conversation about which riding lawn mower to purchase.

It was all rather surreal. But on the last night I was there, I told dad good-bye. There was this flight to catch. And I stepped out, knowing I wouldn’t see him until heaven. And suddenly, the gates opened, and I deeply wept in the hall. And I reflected on this—God all along had been doing something amazing. He allowed time for me to tell my dad how much I have loved him and how grateful I am that of all the fathers I could have had, none could have been better to me than dad. He took me on his sales routes when I was a kid, and taught me how to be an adult. He instilled hard work. He demanded much, and I determined to rise to the occasion. When he finally had resources later in life, he lavished generosity on me. When I told him at 3 am I was not going to the Air Force Academy (an appointment he was so proud of), and told him I was going into the ministry (a profession he had so often associated only with pain), he bit his tongue and gave me the freedom to do whatever I felt led to do. And on our last night, in our last exchange, he told me what any son longs to hear—”I am proud of you son.”

It is God who determines when the seed sprouts. I am still learning this. As Robinson points out, we have a role, a necessary one. But we are not in charge. It’s not all about me, my strengths, my gifts, my skills, and my resolve. We have a role as pastors (and sons and daughters), but it is not primary. It all makes for an uneasy dance—knowing when to wait and when to move into action; when to plant; when to listen in silence and wait in wonder. With dad, I waited. And then, a few days later, at the perfect moment, with mom in the room by his side, he stopped breathing. And when mom called to tell me, she said words I will never forget: “As he passed, he had the biggest smile on his face.”

About John Johnson

John Johnson is the former lead pastor at Village Church in Portland, OR. Presently, he is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary and devoted to writing.

1 thought on “Living With A Dying Parent

  1. John,
    I was so moved by your story…my Dad is approaching 80 and I find myself thinking more about life without him. Tomorrow he will be baptized ….one more example of his fight to know God and be faithful.
    Your article was an inspiration to me this morning to write him a note of encouragement and thanks.
    In His grace,

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