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Prepare to be bound for glory

Two initiatives urge you and your family to plan ahead

Say you have a stroke. Or a massive heart attack or terrible auto accident. Say 911 gets there in time.
Do you want to be resuscitated? Kept alive?
Do you want to be on a respirator in order to keep breathing? If you are unable to eat, do you want a feeding tube inserted into your stomach? If you could go on a long time like that, mostly unconscious — would you want to? If not — would you at least want to be kept alive until your family could gather?
We don’t like talking about death. But when we do, lots of questions arise.

Rev. Helen Jackson Lockett-El

Often, families haven’t worked things out before the crisis. Then they may turn to clergy for help deciding what to do, putting pastors in the middle of fights about what Mom or Dad wanted and whether to pull the plug. “Pastors,” says the Rev. Helen Jackson Lockett-El, “feel the brunt of that.”

Talk about it

How do you want to die? We are all heading in that direction, and hate it or not, we should talk about it, says Jackson Lockett-El, program organizer for the Minnesota Council of ChurchesGraceful Journey project.

As hard as it is, discussing death ahead of time can be a very empowering, really enriching conversation.

Graceful Journey partners with another initiative called Honoring Choices Minnesota. The latter, an effort of the Twin Cities Medical Society, covers the healthcare side of dying. Graceful Journey covers the spiritual side. “Dying is not just a medical event,” says Jackson Locket-El. “It’s really a spiritual event with medical implications.”
Both efforts urge individuals and families to make end-of-life choices early and record decisions in written documents called healthcare directives. Both efforts offer resources to help. (See “For More Information,” below.) The purpose is to “have people better prepared for end-of-life issues,” says Jackson Lockett-El, “by talking about it, by letting their wishes be known.”

Nothing is easy

The Rev. Diane Greve isn’t directly involved with Graceful Journey, but routinely encounters end-of-life issues. Greve, manager of clinical pastoral education at Fairview Health Services in Minneapolis, sees doctors turn from the bedside of the dying to ask, “What did your Dad want? Can you remember what he said?”
Ideally, families have already worked that out in an earnest heart-to-heart. In practice, not so — which makes it all the harder to think clearly at that bedside. “When you’re in the middle of the crisis,” says Greve, “you’re dealing with it emotionally.”
Suppose you have the heart-to-heart well ahead of any crisis. What if people change their minds? Nothing is carved in stone. Even if it is in writing, it “doesn’t mean you can’t come back and re-engage,” Greve adds.

‘Empowering, enriching’

As hard as it is, discussing death ahead of time “can be a very empowering, really enriching conversation,” says the Rev. Steve Robertson, associate pastor for congregational care at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. “It’s the greatest and perhaps last gift we give to family.”

“When you’re in the middle of the crisis, you’re dealing with it emotionally.”

Westminster Presbyterian created its own three-part end-of-life presentation and held sessions in March and April. The sessions included both Honoring Choices and Graceful Journey components, covering wills, hospice, home care, medical directives, preplanned funerals or memorial services, as well as the choices of body donation, cremation, and burial. Graceful Journey presented on medical directives.
Graceful Journey offers its own presentations free, either two 90-minute sessions or four 45-minute versions suitable for a Bible study sequence. The project has more than a dozen trained “faith ambassadors” who lead presentations.

Young people?

We are all approaching the end of life, whatever our age. It is not just about seniors. “We’re trying to come up with creative ways to engage the younger population,” says Jackson Lockett-El.
Young people should also have end-of-life directives, she thinks. Motorcycle accident? A fall off a ladder? She served as a chaplain at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis and at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. “I’ve seen lot of trauma coming through,” she says.
Old or young, an early end-of-life directive can save a family much trouble in a time of terrible turmoil. Pull the plug? Yes or no? “That decision needs to be made,” she argues. “Many times a family is torn apart by who should make that decision.”
Families that have been through such difficult decisions might think that the experience of being there while a loved one dies is anything but graceful. Pastors do their best. Nurses and doctors come and go. Family may be bitter, angry, divided.
Is it misleading to suggest that such a passage can be a time of grace? Is death not harsh and graceless?
If so, “we would like to change that,” says Jackson Lockett-El, “so we can have a peaceful, graceful journey.”

For more information …

Preparation for end-of-life decisions will help make the transitions somewhat easier.
This site explains the Minnesota Council of Churches’ Graceful Journey project. You can register for a free upcoming session and/or sign up for free training to become a “Congregation of Care” that helps with presentations. That training begins June 14.
This site has information about the Twin Cities Medical Society’s Honoring Choices initiative, which offers resources to encourage families and communities to discuss end-of-life care choices.

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