Hope beyond the empty room


I was warned about this. The sudden, unexpected empty feeling in the pit of the stomach. The numb grief. The self-doubt and regret. I was warned about all of it.

When we started a small nursing home ministry almost two years ago, our priest, Fr. John, warned us. And, on each new occurrence, he’s been there to support us and reassure us. When we started, he told us something he learned early on as a priest: “If you do this for very long, you’ll end up burying a lot of friends.”

That has been the case in the short history of our nursing home ministry. It’s just the nature of lay ministry to a nursing home population. You get to know them. They grow to trust you. You pray with them. They tell you fears, regrets, joys and sorrows. They unpack to you all the things they have no-one else to tell, sensing the days are short in which to do the telling. You do your best to share with them some shade of the reassurance we have in Christ. Most of the time, that comes simply by being present. You grow to love them. And then, they die.

I can’t claim this is a surprise. Or, at least it shouldn’t be. We knew when we signed on. We were warned. We all die, and it’s no surprise those in a nursing home are closer to the end of this walk than most.

But, the nature of our ministry makes it almost always a surprise when death arrives. Because we are not family members, we are not entitled to any information about our congregants’ health. We receive no notice when they’ve gone into the final stage of hospice care, or when they die. It’s not unusual for the funeral to have already occurred when we find out this person, whose hand we held in prayer, who we served Communion on our last visit, who showed no hint of the imminence of their mortality just a week earlier, is gone and buried.

Usually, the first sign we have that one of our group of regular worshipers has died comes when we arrive to serve Communion, only to find their room cleaned out. The bed stripped of linens. Curtains removed and blinds raised. The pictures of children and the long-gone spouse removed. All signs of humanity gone, leaving only sterile surfaces and the faint smell of disinfectant.

There is no funeral for us to attend. No farewell. Only an empty room, and lingering doubts about the last visit. Did I pray the right prayers? Did I pay enough attention to what they had to say? Was I intentional enough when I served Communion? Was I entirely focused on being present with them, or was a part of me thinking ahead to the next thing on my schedule?

All those doubts punched me in the face today, when I brought Communion to Laura, only to find that obscenely clean room. The chair pushed into a corner. Random medical equipment shoved into the room in which she lived her last days, now used as temporary storage. She was gone, and for the life of me I couldn’t remember anything in particular about the last time I served her Communion. What I did remember was visiting recently — it must have been shortly before she died — to find she was sleeping. “I’ll come back, and bring her Communion next time,” I thought. But, there was no next time. Just that empty room.

I met Laura the first time early in our ministry. Like most of the people in this particular nursing home, she was raised in a non-liturgical tradition, and really had no idea about The Episcopal Church. We serve folks from all different denominations, most of whom are just happy to have someone there to pray with and listen to them. In our group service, we use hymns from a Baptist hymnal, because they’re well-known by our regulars. But there’s always that time when we first offer Communion or Unction (the laying on of hands and anointing with oil), when the response is something like “I’m not sure about this.” We offer but never push. We let them set the pace, and most eventually request the Sacraments, after becoming comfortable with us.

In her first few times at our group service, Laura sat quietly and politely. She prayed along with the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer, sang the hymns and listened attentively to the Scripture and reflection. But, when Communion and Unction were offered, she would quietly and politely say something like “I’m not sure what that means.”

During one of my one-on-one visits with Laura she asked me to explain further about the Eucharist and Unction. We read together the Gospel account of the Lord’s Supper, and several passages on the biblical basis for anointing with consecrated oil, notably James 5:14-16:

Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.

After reading the passages, she sat quietly for a moment, then crossed her hands and said softly: “Well, it’s in the Bible, isn’t it?”

From that point, she asked to receive the Sacraments of Unction and Holy Communion on each visit. And, we continued to read Scripture and pray together. It wasn’t about bringing her over to my denomination. It was about two people from different denominations, different traditions, different generations, learning from each other and sharing in our common bond in Christ.

As with all our nursing home residents, I’m certain I received far more than I imparted — spiritually, intellectually and emotionally. And then, I found myself standing with a Communion box and Bible in the door to her empty room. I experienced — still am experiencing — the regular “what-ifs” and “should-haves.” I fell into the old trap of feeling I’d failed Laura. I should have been there more often. Should have come back after that last visit. Should have been with her closer to her death.

I wanted to crawl off somewhere and wallow in that self-doubt. But, an episode from the biography of St. Josemaría Escrivá (no, not comparing myself to him at all) came back to me. St. Josemaría was ministering to a young woman named Sofia, who was near death. He told her:

“My daughter, don’t be afraid — Jesus is waiting for you! I am asking him to cure you, but may his will be done. Sometimes it is hard to accept that divine will when we cannot understand, but the Lord must laugh at us a little at times like this, because he loves and looks after us like a real father with a mother’s heart.”

I am able to let go of the regrets and self-doubt, or I should be, because salvation isn’t up to me. It’s up to God, and God already granted it to us through grace. God is in control, loving Laura, and me and all of us, as a mother and father. So, I can let go of the regret. Let’s say it’s a work in progress. But, the grief remains. It’s a feeling that draws me again to St. Josemaría and Sofia.

St. Josemaría was deeply affected by the loss of any of his spiritual “children.” As he left Sofia’s hospital room, “without trying to hide his grief,” he offered her this prayer:

“Fiat adimpleatur, laudetur, et in aeternum superexaltetur iustissima atque amabilissima voluntas Dei super omnia. Amen. Amen!” : “May the most righteous and lovable will of God be done, accomplished, praised, and eternally exalted above all things. Amen. Amen!”

The simple truth is, none of us know how much time we have in this version of life, before God’s “most righteous and lovable will” calls us home. I don’t know when that will be for me, or for any of us. And, I don’t need to know. I don’t need to know when, or how, or why because I know — and strive to know better — what Laura knew effortlessly: “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.”

O God, who by the glorious resurrection of your Son Jesus
Christ destroyed death, and brought life and immortality to
light: Grant that your servant Laura, being raised with him, may
know the strength of his presence, and rejoice in his eternal
glory; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one
God, for ever and ever. Amen.

4 thoughts on “Hope beyond the empty room

  1. I work at a cancer support center and also have had been caught unprepared for someone to die when he or she did. I try to remember one encounter with the person and hold onto gratitude for the person and what he or she gave to me. I am grateful when family let us know of a person’s death. But when that does not happen, I remind myself of my role and thank God for a lesson in humility. Spending time with vulnerable people is a great ministry and gift; keep up the good work.

    • Thank you Madeline. One of my pitfalls in lay ministry is trying to take on too much responsibility for outcomes, instead of just being humble in the process. I need to be humble in my role. I like your recommendation to focus on one encounter. Have a blessed day, and thank you for your ministry.

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