What Is It Like to Die? (Sept – Oct 1996)

By Matt Dabbs

by David Hefelfinger, M. D., FAAP
September – October, 1996

Several years ago, I cared for an eight-year-old boy who developed the sudden manifestations of an acute, inoperable brain tumor. I talked with his parents and told them about the problem. The mother’s steadfast wish was that I provide care in her home during the terminal phase.

Since the tumor was already quite large, the terminal phase was not many months away. There was an extremely warm, loving and affectionate relationship between mother and son which touched me daily. As the child worsened, I made house calls to their home twice daily. His mother often read to him to help him pass the painful hours away.

One afternoon, as they were reading about King Arthur and his knights, recalling their battle exploits, this boy startled his mother with the question: “Mother, what is it like to die? Does it hurt?”

The inquiry caught his mother off-guard and, on the pretense of checking something in the kitchen, she excused herself promptly.

I watched her as she ran into the kitchen, with tears beginning to flow down her cheeks. We were already good friends before her child became terminally ill, but our relationship broadened and our dependence on God increased through this terminal illness. There by the refrigerator, I heard her pray an urgent prayer: “Oh God, this little boy of mine is about to die. Give me some answers that will take away his fear.”

Immediately, I had the feeling that this kitchen had become a holy place for this prayer. We held hands and I prayed with her. In a short time, she dried her eyes, composed herself and went back into the room.

“You asked what it would be like to die,” she said to her son. “Well, do you remember when you were well, how you used to play outside all day and come in so tired? You would eat supper and then sit down on the couch to watch television and fall asleep. And you were always amazed to wake up in your pajamas. What you did not know was that your father came, with his strong arms, and carried you upstairs and put you into bed.

“This is what dying is like, my dear,” she said. “It is going to sleep in one room of God’s house and waking up in another. It’s going to sleep downstairs and waking up upstairs. Thanks to God’s everlasting care and mercy, it does not hurt at all!”

The answer seemed to satisfy the boy. All anxiety drained out of his eyes. A few days later, when he did experience the great transition, he made the journey in gentle peace.

Life is very fragile — I learn this more each day. Caring for this boy in this Christian home taught me more than I had ever experienced in my previous years of caring for critically ill children. But mostly I learned that I am not in control of nearly as much as I thought.

This little story expresses my deepest faith about God and dying, and what lies in the great beyond. But now it has a special poignancy because I have seen it happen in someone else’s life, and this will make it easier for me when I have to face it myself. Wineskins Magazine

Dr. Hefelfinger is a professor and chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Alabama School of Medicine, in Tuscaloosa. The article appeared in the AAP News—The Official Newspaper of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Volume 12, Number 3. Reprinted by permission.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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