Tuesday, 27 November 2012

God, darkness and dementia

I was called out recently to pray for a lady in her late nineties who was close to death. She had been suffering with dementia and was in the latter stages of that dreadful condition. As I prepared to attend I faced the same dilemma I always do in these circumstances, what do I say? What should I read? Would it make any difference because her mind was to all intents and purposes unable to understand much anyway - or at least so I am led to believe.

It is moments like these that we are called to trust God. He knows the circumstances of our lives and calls people like me to minister in them. So all we can do in such a position is our best, prayerfully trusting in his grace and guidance. So I set to to prepare some appropriate readings that spoke of God's love and faithfulness, and some familiar prayers and set off. When I arrived I was shown the lady's room and sensitively left on my own the person who accompanied me shutting the door quietly as they left. The scene was a familiar one, simple furnishings with one or two personal mementos by the side of the bed and a large single bed with a small shrunken woman lying on it, breathing quietly, mouth open and eyes shut. The room was still, though more like a church than a morgue, and I spoke quietly to the lady saying who I was and why I had come.

Medical staff will always tell you that the hearing is the last of the senses to go and so I felt fairly confident that even if the lady could not fully understand me, she could at least hear me. So I said some prayers and read the passages that spoke of Jesus preparing a place in the Father's house of many mansions from John 14. And then after a few more silent prayers I said goodbye and left feeling rather pathetic and useless.

Of course the ministry is so busy that you didn't have time to reflect much on what went on in that room and so I forgot the lady for a few days until the phone rang and the undertaker asked me to take her funeral. She had died the afternoon or evening of the day I had visited and as i was the local incumbent could  I take it? I agreed.

And then came the time of reflection. What could I say? What words of comfort could I speak to a family who had receded into anonymity because of the forgetfulness of dementia? How could God speak meaningfully into this situation? What could I offer - or better God offer through me?

They say that you never really forget anything. You just lose the ability, over time, to draw it up out of the well which is your memory. As I thought about the funeral two verses from Psalm 139 came to me:
"If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night”, 12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you."

The words  are twice inspired. First, they inspired the writer who heard them spoken through his head and heart from God. And second, they inspired me as I wondered what to say and reflected on my experience with a comatose elderly dementia patient on the brink of death. As a result I was able to write about her and included the following in my homily or tribute at her funeral:

"Dementia has been described as a darkening of the mind as parts of it shut down and die. But you and I are more than our brains. There is something beyond that thinking computer located in our heads called the spirit or the soul. So even as the darkness of dementia covered N's mind and the light about her became as night, so, the psalmist says: "even the darkness is not dark to God and the descending night is as bright as day to him.”

So although all was closed to N. that day as I visited her and she continued to slip away from this life, I believe that God was with her and as the darkness fell to us, so the dawn of new life rose for her."

As the psalm reminds us there is nowhere we can hide from God who knows our thoughts before we think them and who discerns our thoughts from afar. Wherever we are, if we are his, the Lord's hand shall lead us, and his right hand hold us (verse 10). And as he held the hand of that lady when I committed her to him, so I believe the same of my father who died from the same disease and who I was able to pray for before he went through the darkness into the light.

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