Editor’s note: Making end-of-life decisions for another person can be among the most difficult, emotionally charged choices made by family members and medical personnel. In this series, Covenant hospital chaplains share their experiences of walking with others and how they have been impacted. In part one, Scott Johnson describes being surprised by grace in a profound moment. For related stories, see Making Decisions in the Face of Death and A Holy Presence.
BEND, OR (April 27, 2016) — Covenant chaplain Scott Johnson was on duty the day a man who was involved in a freak accident at work was rushed to the hospital. Although surgeons worked to relieve pressure on the man’s brain, they could not reverse the damage. For the next several days, Johnson ministered to the man’s wife and five adult children as they faced an unimaginable decision: whether to remove life support.
“His wife pressed over and over again to know whether there was any medical hope,” Johnson said. She also wanted to know whether she would be killing her husband if she agreed to remove his life support. There were several discussions with multiple doctors, friends, and Johnson.
Finally she recognized that it was time to let go.
The family had another difficult decision, however. How would they tell the couple’s youngest child, a teenage daughter who suffered from a severe autism disorder?
They gathered together by their father’s bedside, and Johnson helped them explain to the girl that life support was going to be withdrawn and that her father was going to die.
“Who will make my oatmeal?” she asked. “Am I going to be an orphan now?”
Johnson then helped the family plan a bedside service. “We made sure no one else came into the room,” he said. “We made it a sacred space.”
At the family’s request, Johnson anointed the man’s hands and feet with lavender oil because it had been his favorite scent. One by one each family member anointed him with the oil. Some read words they had written. The teenage daughter went last.
“She anointed him with a generous amount of lavender oil on his mustache,” Johnson said. “Then she wiped tears from under her glasses and anointed his forehead with her tears.”
The girl then turned to Johnson. Again she wiped the tears from her eyes, and with them she made the sign of the cross on his forehead. It was, he said, one of the most profound moments of his life.
The family said their goodbyes and left the room, except the man’s wife.
Alone in the room, with the lights down low, she curled up by his side as life support measures were withdrawn and he died in her arms.