Ministering to the dying and their families: Interview w/Bob Groth

Dave: Tell me a little about your church, name, location, history etc.

Bob: I pastored in the American Lutheran Church for 13 years. I planted a church in 1985 that was a founding congregation of Harvest Ministries International. In 1995 we were adopted into the Association of Vineyard Churches. We are Vineyard Community Church and located in Oregon, WI, a bedroom community just south of Madison, on the spacious second floor of a bank building.

Dave: You have 10 years experience in the hospice care profession. Along with this you are a night chaplain at a local hospital. Most pastors have little or no training in ministering to the dying and the families of the dying. First of all, what advice would you give to someone attempting to minister to someone dying, i.e. what should they do, not do?

Bob: Do take off your coat and sit down no matter how long you intend to stay. Do consider kneeling next to the bed at the patient’s eye level. Do ask the patient/family how long a visit they would like (dying patients and caregivers can get exhausted quickly). Do listen and be with them in the moment. Do talk with them directly even if non-responsive.  Do remember that we believe a person is able to hear from “here to heaven.” Do learn about what it means to be “actively dying.” (This is when death is imminent)  Do ask questions like, “How long have you been fighting this disease?, What gives you strength to go on?, What is your greatest fear? Is there anything you want or need to do in the time you have left? Do ask the hard questions. “Where would you like to die,” (home, hospital, other). “Who would you like to be with you?” Do talk with them about the memorial/funeral service and how to personalize it for them if they would like. “What would you like to say to everyone who comes to the service? Do share Scripture and prayer.

Don’t be uncomfortable with silence. Don’t be uncomfortable with emotion. Don’t be afraid of using the words “death and dying.” Don’t look often at your watch.  Don’t allow your cell phone to interrupt you. Don’t use religious clichés like  “God wanted him and took him,” or Romans 8:28.  Don’t explain how you deal theologically with “bad things happening to good people.”  Don’t minimize the power of God’s presence and purpose that goes with you into that room.

Dave: Similarly, what advice would you give to someone attempting to minister to the families of those who are dying?

Bob: I feel that I have always had a positive ministry to those who are sick and to their families. However, since I have been at Hospice Care Inc., I have come to appreciate the value of helping the family and patient talk with each other. A person dying wants to know that “I have made a difference in my family,” and to hear their family say “You have been a good spouse, parent/grandparent.

Dr. Ira Byock, in his book “The Four Things That Matter Most,” lists the eleven words that dying people have taught him about what matters most in living and dying.  “Please forgive me.” “I forgive you.” “Thank you.”  “I love you.”  I try to listen and to help families and patients express these important words and feelings to each other. For example, I ask, “Tell me how you met your spouse. How long have you been married? Was it love at first sight?” And then respond to their answers. “It is obvious to me that you love your spouse very much.” And then I reflect to the spouse, “Do you know you are loved? Does your spouse tell you? Have you told your spouse?” And to other family including adult children and grandchildren, “What do you love about (the patient)? What should I know about her/him” And I reflect what has been said back to the patient & family. “It’s obvious to me that you love each other. “Do you tell each other about your love?” “You can do it now.”

Dave: What would you tell a pastor who feels totally intimidated and inadequate at the bedside of the dying?

Bob: All of us experience those feelings.  Remember there is a great power in presence, just being there with the family and patient. Look for resources in your area for help.  Spend a day with a hospice chaplain. Spend a day with a hospital chaplain with a focus on death and dying issues. Have a chaplain/pastor from your denomination speak about death and dying issues. Read “On Death and Dying,” the classic book by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. She learned about death and dying by asking her patients about it and how it felt. Read “Final Gifts,” by Maggie Callahan and Patricia Kelley. At Hospice Care Inc. in Madison, we gave a copy of that book to each family we served for years.

Dave: Thanks Bob.

If you have more questions you can reach Bob at: groth4@charter.net