What I Learned While Sitting With A Dying Man

It has taken me a few days to work up to writing this. I took a long drive, starting on Sunday, to visit a relative that I hadn’t seen in 15 years. When I left, I didn’t know why I was making this drive after so long an estrangement. I had some highly theological ideas in my head: I was going to and “minister” to him, I was going to pray with him, I was going to serve him Holy Communion, etc.

My family member – whom I will not name, out of respect to his privacy and the feelings of other family members – is dying. Were we to talk to a doctor, he or she would say that my family member has “terminal cancer.” “Cancer”, by itself, is a scary word. “Terminal” is the worst kind of cancer, and when we hear words like “Stage 4” and “metastasized”, our hearts sink. Because, all of these sterile and clinical words are designed to detach us from the truth: someone that we know and love is dying. They are leaving this world behind, and they are leaving it slowly. “Dying” is the most terrifying word of all.

I have plenty of experience with death. I was a medic in the US Army for 9 years, and I did 2 tours of Iraq in that time – including 9 months in the most dangerous and deadly city in the country. But, except on very rare occasions, I have never had to sit with the dying. Death in war is a sudden thing. You’re not required to process it, because it is always a past tense. Death isn’t something that your friends go through in war, it’s something that happens – something that happened – to them. You process the death as history, not as something in the here and now.

I hadn’t seen my family member in 15 years, but my memories of him were of a man “hale and hearty.” When I saw him last week, all of my theological illusions were shattered. This man was not who I remembered: he was sick, he was weak, he was in pain.

He was dying.

I sat with him for a time, trying to think of what to say after 15 years of unexplained estrangement. I never took the time to confront him with the things about him that I found repugnant or repulsive; I simply walked away from the relationship, and never looked back. Oh, there were some insubstantial phone conversations over the years, but I was always in so much of a hurry to hang up and get back to anything else. It never occurred to me that this was a person who loved me and wanted to spend time with me. I had reduced him to a worldview, a set of beliefs and opinions that I disagreed with.

I didn’t see racism or sexism or extreme conservatism when I sat there with this dying man. I saw a sick man, in pain and very, very scared. And, it scared me. Suddenly, here was the act of dying, staring me in the face. I suddenly felt responsible for every moment that I had failed to spend with him, getting to know him and letting him get to know me.

He has never met my wife.

He has never met my children.

He has never seen me write or preach, never heard me talk at length about the things that I’m passionate about.

I have never asked him why he feels so strongly the way that he does. I have never sought to understand him as a man with a wide range of experiences. I have never looked to him for wisdom or guidance, always assuming that because I disagreed so strongly on so many things, that he didn’t have any.

What I learned while sitting with this dying man is something that I have preached and written about, but that I have practiced very poorly in my own life.

Forgiveness. I learned about forgiveness.

It wasn’t just about forgiving him. In fact, I realized that I had very little to forgive him for. His anger or disgust with certain people, his “backwards” attitudes… none of that had been directed at me.For all his attitudes, he was never mean or deliberately discriminatory to anyone.  If I needed to forgive him of anything, it was simply of being a man who was out of step with the times that he lived in, not for any abuse.

But I found that I had no right to forgive him, because I had very little reason to be angry in the first place. He has always been so much more than just the opinions that I disagreed with, but I was too stubborn and prideful to move past it.

The person who needed forgiveness was me, and the only person who could forgive me was myself.

Forgiveness is one of the central tenets of the Christian faith. Some would say that it is the central tenet: God forgives us, and we must forgive others. Jesus spoke many times on forgiveness, and the forgiveness that we give others must always be unconditional.

It’s a forgiveness that doesn’t concern itself with who is in the wrong. It’s a forgiveness that speaks first, in love, without waiting for an apology. It’s a difficult forgiveness, a radical forgiveness. It’s the forgiveness that a dying Man gives to the people that tortured and killed Him. It’s the forgiveness that the same Man gives to the best friend who abandoned Him.

Christianity isn’t the only religion or worldview that recognizes the value of this forgiveness. One of my favorite quotes (which I can’t attribute properly and can only paraphrase) says that, “Unforgiveness is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die.”

I am the worst of sinners when we’re talking about unforgiveness. Only recently, I have found that I am still holding on to hurts that are twenty years behind me. Acknowledging those hurts is not wrong. Confronting the person who hurt you is not wrong.

But withholding forgiveness just for the sake of holding on to the pain of past hurts is like a poison of the spirit.

At one point, another family member began to speak about funeral arrangements. I walked outside, smoked a cigarette, and then began to weep. It was not only in grief for my loved one, but in grief for the 15 years of lost opportunities. My inability to see him and to forgive whatever I held against him had poisoned me, and brought me to a place where there was nothing I could do to regain what I had lost, was losing in front of my eyes.

I did my best. I showed him pictures of my family. We talked about a shared love of Stephen King. I asked him what books he liked to read, since he’s confined to a bed. He told me about the church that he has been attending, and how the priest brings him the Sacraments every day.

And all I could think was that there is just not enough time.

Let it go, friends. Whatever you’re holding on to, whatever secret pain you carry, let it go. It won’t heal all the scars of abuse. It can’t turn back the clock. It can’t hold people who have hurt and abused you accountable for their actions (and I do believe that people should be held accountable for abuse.) Forgiveness isn’t about holding people accountable, or being right, or changing what happened.

Forgiveness is about dropping our burdens. Forgiveness is about surrendering our pain – to God, to the Universe, to the thin air.

Forgiveness is about freedom. And you deserve to be free, and at peace, after so many years in bondage and pain.

I can’t write anymore about this. I want to see him again, but I want to see him as he was, not as a dying man lying in a bed. But, I’ve squandered that chance.

I know that last week may well be the last time I see this man, who has always loved me and wanted the best for me. I know that the next trip will probably be to a funeral, and that the next chance I have to sit with him will be beside a casket, rather than a bed.

I need to forgive myself, even as I want to hate myself for it. Holding on to my mistake feels like I can somehow keep him close to my heart in a way that I failed to for my entire adult life.

But I have to forgive myself. I have to let it go. And I need to find the rest of the people in my life that I’m squandering a relationship with, and forgive both them and myself.

I don’t want to have to learn this lesson again at another bedside, at a casket, in a graveyard.

I don’t want anyone else to either.

Grace and peace to you all,

Michael Brian Woywood

One thought on “What I Learned While Sitting With A Dying Man

  1. Michael what a beautiful tribute to “him”. Something I can tell you for certain that he wouldn’t like it very much if you hated yourself for not building that relationship. In his eyes you are forgiven because he really loves you and that is all that matters.

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