“We can give him more morphine to aid the process, if you wish.” That is what the attending nurse volunteered late one evening as the family and I sat by the bedside of their dying husband and father. He was snoring loudly but expected to die soon as a result of a head injury which had left his brain stem severely compromised. He was not exhibiting any agitation, nor had the family requested anything to quiet his all too familiar snoring. In fact, the doctor had just noted that it was unlikely, due to the condition of his brain, that he would feel any pain. When the nurse left, I explained to the family that sometimes the dosage of morphine is increased to the point that it actually speeds death. They agreed that they were not comfortable with such an action but desired to put their loved one into the hands of his loving Heavenly Father.
The nurse, however, was not to be put off. She asked four more times that evening whether they wanted her to increase the morphine. Each time they politely declined. So, when I left the hospital at 2:30 a.m., I asked for the nurse. I explained to her that they did not want morphine to speed death because their standing by his side was their way of demonstrating their love for him and their confidence that Jesus knew what was best. I am sure she had never heard anything like that before—and she was impressed (if not confused).
I was back in the room by 7 a.m. His condition was deteriorating rapidly. We sang hymns. We prayed. We read Scripture. I was thankful when his wife asked to sing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Our voices were soft and emotional, but the message was clear, God is faithful even to the point of death. What better way to die than to have your hand held by your loved one and to be listening to the Word of God when you come into His presence? This was the testimony given to the nursing staff by a faithful Christian family in a very difficult circumstance.
By God’s grace I have read a number of my members into the presence of their Savior. God does not abandon His people in this time of need. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (Psalm 116:15).
The attitude of that nurse, however, demonstrates the fears of the world regarding death. It is likely that many people in similar circumstances are put to death for the sake of the suffering of someone other than the patient. I don’t make light of such suffering. The family does suffer when a loved one is dying. The nurses do suffer. Yet, why should our suffering break our confidence in God’s love? How can our suffering justify hastening the death of our loved one? How many medical personnel could benefit from a calm confidence in the faithfulness of our loving Savior?
These are difficult questions. The answers are best found, not in the medical capacity to avoid suffering, but in the faithfulness of God in Christ Jesus.
Rev. Terry Forke is pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church, Harlowton, Montana, and the president of the Montana District of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.