By Barb Arland-Fye
A Sister I had come to know through reporting assignments was dying and I went to visit her in the nursing home where she spent her final weeks. I’m not sure Sister was fully aware of my presence, and that’s OK because I wasn’t a close friend and wondered whether it was appropriate for me to visit.
But two Sisters from her religious community soon entered the room and that’s when I witnessed a holy moment. After greeting me they quickly moved to Sister’s bedside, comforting her with words of faith, stroking her hands and reassuring her of their companionship during this difficult transition.
That memory is sacred to me, and provided a dimension of dying I had never before encountered: the concept of companionship.
It’s a familiar concept to Nancy McBride, minister of pastoral care for St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf. I contacted her a month ago for information about grief ministry; she shared a wealth of information and observations. Today she called about a calendar she received with a quote for the month of January she thought I would appreciate: “Companioning is about being present to another person’s pain; it’s not about taking away the pain.”
The call was in response to our conversation about how to interact with people who have lost loved ones and are grieving. I told Nancy that I’m reluctant to approach fellow parishioners, acquaintances and even friends who’ve recently lost loved ones because I don’t want to exacerbate their pain.
Later, I spoke with Marcia, whose husband died in a work accident eight years ago. We became fast friends after I interviewed her for a story about the accident. I didn’t have the same reservations talking with Marcia about her loss because our relationship began on a professional level. Reporting gave me permission, in a sense, to ask questions I might not otherwise ask. But the interview led to further conversations and a lasting friendship developed.
The first couple of years of widowhood were difficult for Marcia because she had no family in the area and was trying to come to terms with establishing a new life after being a wife for 30 years.
I asked Marcia, who now lives out of state, how she has come to terms with the death of her husband, Spencer. She told me, “If you recognize the sovereignty of God and that all things are for the good, grief has a different meaning. I still miss Spencer; I will always miss him and I will always love him. But I think of all of the good things that have happened in my life. God doesn’t take away our loved ones to be mean. He has other things he wants us to do with our lives.”
Another image comes to mind of dying — the emaciated face of my father-in-law Bill who was losing his battle with cancer, but wasn’t ready to let go. That was another aspect of death I was unfamiliar with. How do you talk to someone who so desperately wants to live? I don’t know the answer to that question. But I do know he needed to hear us tell him we love him. And perhaps most important of all, to hear my husband Steve tell him he’d been a good father.