Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Death is never convenient. It is sometimes unexpected. It is usually awkward. What do you say to someone when both of you know that it may be your last conversation?
Invariably, the subject of Christ comes up. Why? Christianity has the distinction to be the only religion that began in a graveyard. Only Christ has conquered death. In her book, Sharing Christ with the Dying, Melody Rossi ventures into this awkward, inconvenient but important space.
Rossi writes: The purpose of this book is to help you become an instrument through with God can minister to the spiritual needs of a dying person who does not yet know him (19). Rossi writes from her experience in witnessing to her father, mother, and step-mother none of whom had embraced Christ in life but all of whom came to Him in their final days (18).
Because of her close, intimate relationship with each of them, she had access to them in their dying days in a manner that is frequently not available to anyone else. Even pastors and chaplains are frequently denied such access, in part, because close relatives and attending staff shelter the dying from people outside the immediate family circle. In secular circles, the needs of the dying for spiritual guidance and care are often treated as sentimental attachments and the spiritual void is filled with sentimental substitutes—flowers, poetry, happy music, and words of comfort—rather than the hope of resurrection. For this reason, Christians often find themselves the only ones with access to the dying who are able to offer spiritual guidance within their family circles.
Still, the needs for spiritual guidance are real.
In Rossi’s case, her father was a workaholic who owned a chain of nightclubs (50-52). He divorced her mother to marry one of the topless waitresses from one of his clubs (54-56). Her mother responded with bitterness (52-54). Consequently, none of the three were in life practicing Christians and their conversion as they approached death came as a surprise.
Rossi advises us to look for landmarks that indicate an interest in talking about spiritual matters. Among these landmarks are: mention of God, fear of death, church, desire to talk to clergy, faith of others, and so on (63-64). The key comes in responding to these landmarks, not with answers, but with interest in learning more about what the person is thinking. Keep the conversation flowing (64-65).
Rossi reports that 3 simple questions come up most frequently:
- Is there really an afterlife?
- What is God like?
- How can I have peace with God?
The answer (as we learned as kids to any question posed by a pastor) is Jesus! (67) The ticket to being permitted to hear the questions, according to Rossi, is to be willing to serve the needs of the person dying (72) and to develop a support team to permit you to hang in there for the long haul (91). Rossi’s insights are critical, in my experience, because cancer patients and others with a chronic illness often find themselves isolated from friends and family who are unable to cope with their own demons let allow be available to someone with problems.
Years ago before I attended seminary I went to visit an uncle dying of pancreatic cancer. He was a very sensitive person and during our visit he arranged so we could put puzzles together. This allowed us to spend hours at a time together without the awkward need to speak. Still, he did have questions about his faith. Because his brother is a pastor, I was surprised to hear such questions addressed to me—an economist at the time. His key need, however, was to say goodbye to close friends and family—which he did most graciously.
Rossi’s book is most helpful. While many people will find her outline of physical signs of the approach of death helpful, what is most helpful is just to talk through the process of walking alongside someone as they approach death. Fear of death is primarily the fear of the unknown. Having a roadmap reduces such fear.