Illness and Reconciliation

20 Jun

In a previous blog post, I discussed the crucial role that relationships and community play in human flourishing. Indeed, our need to connect with each is so profound that conflict in our most important relationships can be a source of great distress. This is particularly true when we endure illness. As Daniel Sulmasy writes,

“As their bodies bend and break, dying patients are somehow reminded of the brokenness in their relationships with others and of their deep need for the healing of reconciliation.”[1]

In David Schenek’s book Healers, a physician tells the story of

“a mid-80s lady admitted to our inpatient unit with advanced GI cancer. There was no treatment, and she didn’t want it anyway. She progressed as expected, and she had stopped taking food or liquids. And then she lapsed into an actively dying phase.”


The physician explained that

“I had a very frank talk with the son and grandson, and they wanted to be at the bedside when she takes her last breath. So two, three days passed—four days come, five days passed. . . This went on a week, a week and a half, then two weeks. Defying physiology. We were at a month of not having so much as a drop of water, and yet her heart was beating, barely. No palpable blood pressure. But if watched, every fifteen seconds her chest rose. She was still breathing. . . . Then a friend of the family came in. She nudged me and said, ‘What’s going on?’ I said ‘I don’t know. She won’t die. Maybe you can help.’ She said, ‘You know she has a daughter. They parted 25 years ago. They’d had some disagreements, and then parted, and it wasn’t at all favorable.’ I wondered whether they could resolve it, even though they have not spoken to each other in 25 years, and I said. ‘Do you have any way of getting ahold of her?’ She replied, ‘I haven’t had any contact with her in maybe 10 years, but here is the number I have.’ So I walked in the room, and I called from the bedside phone. A lady answered the phone. I said, ‘This is the doctor from hospice. Is this so-and-so?’ ‘Yes.” ‘I am so glad to be able to get you. I just want you to know that I have been taking care of you mom. He developed cancer some months ago, and she has been declining every since. She is very close to the end of her life now. I just found out that you two had parted some years ago, perhaps not on the best of terms. I know in those circumstances some things can get left unsaid. Some things you might want to tell her and talk to her about.’ She said, ‘Well, yeah.’ I said, ‘You need to understand that she is very close to the end of life. She is not responsive at all. But I am going to put the phone up to her ear to give you a chance just to say whatever you think you might want to say to her. I don’t know if she can physically hear you. But I think she will know you are here.’ So I put the phone down by the patient’s ear. I can hear chattering—kind of wanted a speaker phone. What do you say to somebody after twenty-five years? . . After about five minutes, I see tears rolling down this lady’s face. It was a very powerful moment—because logically, where is the substrate for this? She has no water in her body. . . . So the tears were streaming down her face. I heard the chattering stop, and I took the phone back and described to her daughter what I just saw. ‘I want you to know that she heard what you said, and that her tears flowed. This is a very healing process for her. I thank you very much.’ I hung up the phone—and five minutes later she was dead.”[2]

The physician concluded that “clearly there something she needed to complete in her journey toward health. She was not going to die until that was done.”


[1] Sulmasy, D. Spiritual Issues in the Care of Dying Patients, JAMA, Sept. 20, 2006—Vol 296, No 11

[2] Schenek, David and Larry Churchill. (2012) Healers, Oxford University Press

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Posted by on June 20, 2014 in Uncategorized


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