As They Lay Dying

By Ludmilla B. Turkevich

This article deals with two fine Orthodox women confronting death. Iris, because of the circumstances of her life, learned how to find solace in her Christian faith; Zoya, though she was assertive and firm while healthy, was distressed and even resentful long before she died. I have selected their ultimate ordeals, projected onto our American way of life. Orthodoxy, and ethnic traditions, because they dramatize some very important aspects of dying of which we all should be aware.

Death is a unique, mysterious, and final experience for each person. Hence, the average person naturally feels a certain apprehension. In some, it is a stunning surprise to realize that he/she is fatally ill! The chips are down! How did that happen? Why me? Then follows a deep concern with the mystery of death, fear of pain, and the mortal dread of being alone. Though there may be nurses and doctors all around, the dying person already feels spiritual withdrawal. The presence of a loving, grieving relative or a compassionate priest helps many patients meet death with Christian dignity, reconciliation to the unknown, and entrance into life without end. Let us take a look at Iris and then Zoya.

Iris and the Psalms

A gloomy, cloudy, January day came through the hospital windows. Iris, in the terminal stages of abdominal cancer, had spent an excruciatingly painful night. However, her exhaustion and hopelessness was somewhat relieved by an early visit from her pastor. Father Peter, who had prayed with her, heard her confession, and given her Holy Communion and human compassion. She felt that his characteristic joviality was subdued, but then, it was so early in the morning and so murky! After Father’s departure she again fell into a semi-coma.

As always, Tom came in the early afternoon. He was her younger brother who had always stood by her through thick and thin. When she came to, there he was silently reading a Bible which someone (probably Father Peter) had left on her night table. Tom began to read aloud to her the exquisite poetry and wisdom of the Psalms and a soothing spirit embraced her and every now and then she crossed herself gratefully.

During the following days Tom was accompanied by his wife, Rene, who was tenderly supportive of them in their grief and helped Tom with the reading. When they arrived Iris would be waiting in semi-consciousness. They would begin to read softly and soon they knew by her smile or the pressure of her hand that she was attentive, that the wonderful passages had spiritual impact on her—as, indeed, they had on her visiting relatives. When Tom interrupted the reading to have Rene read for a while. Iris would open her eyes to see what had interrupted the recitation. Reassured, she pressed Tom’s hand lovingly and smiled at Rene who patted her other hand comfortingly. This silent conversation of gestures and love was more eloquent, more meaningful to them than any words.

These sessions, so spiritually rich for the patient as she neared the last threshold of this life, were shared by the three of them in every way possible. The unknown person who had left the Holy Bible, with a bookmark in the Psalms, had subtly directed them to the source of great union and solace in faith.

Zoya and Her Memories

Now let us turn to Zoya whose personality and fate were very different from Iris’. She was an intellectual career woman who during World War II was an eminent war correspondent, and later a lecturer. However, as she moved toward her nineties, she began to speak more and more, with fear and absolute horror, of becoming afflicted with some incapacitating terminal illness. One almost felt that this fear was a dread specter, a premonition. Indeed, one Sunday after attending Liturgy and hosting a small family-type dinner, and as she was leafing through her Sunday Times, she was smitten by a mighty stroke.

Weeks of hospitalization turned to months. A childhood friend of hers came from abroad and hoped to break Zoya’s silence or grim monosyllables. Before long. El lie, the distressed friend, complained to me, “I sit by Zoya for hours but can’t communicate! Neither family gossip nor international news stirs a reaction.”

I thought a bit. I felt an idea stirring. “Ellie, both of you spent your early childhood happily together. Why don’t you try to share some of those memories? Speak to her of your childhood together in Sukhumi! Try that for an ‘opener’!”

The next day Ellie phoned. “It worked, but not enough! Zoya reacted only briefly—and would you believe it?—to correct a couple of facts that I had deliberately twisted!” This ploy did not work with Zoya, but it does work with many elderly with great satisfaction and wholesome distraction.

It must be remembered that as a person grows older, recollection of things long past comes more readily than that of recent days. Depending on physical condition and the company, one can enjoy reminiscing as well as sharing this information of “years long past,” and, importantly, evaluating it. Besides, this gives the aging a sense of participation in life. By the way, Zoya, fearing the “collapse,” left well-ordered archives of her valuable experiences which she bequeathed to an appropriate library.

It is extremely important for family and close friends to be supportive and understanding of the terminally ill patient’s occasional confusion. Remember they fear the unknown. It is the most solemn period of their life and the focus of the visitor’s attention must be on the patient who still needs the living contact desperately. It seems as if they still hope to find strength or reprieve through a healthy visitor’s presence, warm embrace, or softly read prayer. In moments of acute pain a compassionate visitor can help with a firm hug, which suggests support and sharing of strength with the failing patient.

Valuable Literature Available

As you see, our posture and behavior with the dying must be both discrete and warm. Fortunately, there recently appeared a long-needed booklet and packet of material relating to the visitation of shut-ins, which applies as well to terminal patients in hospitals or nursing homes. The author is Mary Ann Renner, Chairperson of the Visitation Committee of the Eastern Orthodox Laity Council of Stark County, Ohio, involving eight Orthodox parishes from OCA, Greek, Romanian, Serbian, and Syrian jurisdictions.

Miss Renner’s booklet presents materials every visitor to shut-ins should know. The visitor must know the patient’s illness, mood, temperament, and progress, as well as how long to visit, possible subjects of conversation, and what language is most comfortable for the patient. There are many other subtle and crucial details important for successful visitations with these lonely people. Clearly Miss Renner is a very sensitive and compassionate person who knows the shut-ins’ problems very well. The booklet is concisely written, with material logically arranged in semi-outline form so that necessary information is easy to find in a hurry.

Miss Renner has also compiled a Directory of Nursing Home Residents for Stark County, giving 1) nursing homes’ names, addresses, and phone numbers, 2) visiting hours, 3) Orthodox residents, 4) language of communication, 5) date of birth of residents, and 6) “special considerations,” such as the patient is “hard of hearing,” “confused,” or the like. For those desiring to send birthday cards to these patients she has included a list of their birth dates in calendar order. At the back she has transliterated a series of prayers in Church Slavonic, English, Greek, and Romanian, so that the visitor may pray in the patient’s own language. She has also drawn up a Nursing Home Patient’s Bill of Rights which will bean eye-opener to many. This is a beautifully conceived packet that should serve as a model for other parishes and should provide the encouragement and guidance to lay visitation with the sick that is so greatly needed in our church structure. To obtain a copy of the booklet. Bringing The Love of Christ to the Elderly and Homebound, or the entire packet of material, write to:

Mary Ann Renner
2310 Chelsea Drive, S.W.
Canton, Ohio 44706

Dr. Ludmilla B. Turkevich has been the Chairwoman of the Section on Seniors, Dept. of Stewardship and Lay Ministries, and lives in Princeton, N.J.