But Moses’ hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat upon it, and Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the going down of the sun.

Exodus 17:12

Years ago, I was called to the hospital to visit a man named Yianni who was in a coma. Everyone, including the hospital personnel, thought that Yianni was about to die. His sister was sobbing, and in between sobs, she wanted to discuss his funeral arrangements. I had heard of the idea that a person’s hearing is the last thing to go, (What Happens As We’re Dying? The First And Last Things To Go (forbes.com)-What happens as We’re Dying?—The First and Last Things to Go, by Dr. Bryan Robinson) and I suggested to Yianni’s sister that perhaps we should take this conversation outside of the room, that he might not like to hear us talking about his funeral when he was still fighting to live. A few days later, I went to the hospital to see Yianni and was shocked when I went into his room and found him sitting up in bed eating. “Yianni,” I exclaimed, now shedding a tear of my own, “I never thought I would talk to you again.” Yianni answered, “Yes, they say I’ll live a little longer, I guess. But hey, thanks for taking my sister out of the room to talk about my funeral plans, I was actually getting annoyed about that.”

There are definitely some things that are helpful in hospital and end of life settings and certain things that aren’t. Here are some suggestions. First, watch what you say because people can hear even if they are not conscious or don’t seem like they are aware. Don’t discuss funeral plans and certainly don’t argue about disconnecting life support in their presence.

Touch your loved one. People can tell the difference between a “clinical” touch and a loving touch. There are lots of touches in the hospital—hospital staff are constantly checking vital signs, drawing blood, checking on an IV and other things. People can tell the difference between someone touching their arm to check vitals and a family member offering a loving touch.

Sing or play music. Music evokes emotion. This is why at a birthday party we sing “Happy Birthday” rather than just say the words. Some songs make us smile, and sometimes songs even make us cry. For people who have had mental impairment because of a stroke or dementia, sometimes songs take them back to younger, healthier, and happier times. I’ve seen people perk up and actually sing along to a song, and then go back into their world of silence. If a loved one was in the choir, or loved worship, put on the Divine Liturgy. In today’s age of livestreamed services, on Sundays or feast days, put on a video of the Divine Liturgy from their home parish, so they can hear (and see) something familiar. Read the Bible. Start with the four Gospels. It’s not too late to hear the message, or hear the comforting words of Psalms, or hear about the Resurrection from the dead.

Watch the things you say. There are two things I hear a lot in hospitals that I would not want to hear if I was a patient. First, do not compliment people for basic things. Many times I’ve heard comments like “he was able to eat all by himself,” or “great job going to the bathroom.” Most people have accomplished lots of things in their lives—they’ve owned businesses, raised children, managed co-workers, run a classroom. To compliment someone for something so basic, I personally would find this demeaning. The second thing well-meaning people often say is “just get home and we will do everything for you,” which, in my opinion, is like saying “we want to keep you around like an heirloom that we will take off the shelf and dust off occasionally.” It would be better to encourage a loved one by saying “I hope you get better because I’m counting on you to _______(fill in the blank).”

Reminiscing about old times and hearing stories from childhood is fun and provides insight that after a person dies will be impossible to get. Make videos, take notes, ask questions. If the person who is dying has the ability to do so, they can write letters, make videos, leave voicemails. I still have a voice message from my mom (and a few other people who have passed) which I still listen to periodically. I have my dad’s voice on a video. There is value in a person’s handwriting, knowing that they placed their hand on something. My dad used to weigh himself every day for years, and he would write down the number on a scrap of paper. When I was home after he passed, and my mom asked me if there was anything I wanted to take back with me, I went through his dresser and found the papers with his weight on them, including his last entry two days before he died. I decided to keep that paper, which was the last thing dad wrote, and even though it is just a bunch of numbers and dates, it means something to me.

We should all write notes to our children, one for when they graduate high school, one perhaps for when they graduate college and one for the day of their wedding, just in case we are not alive for those occasions. What a nice gift to receive a handwritten note or video from a grandparent or parent on a special day they are not alive to attend.

Finally, when it comes to the very end of life, the last moments, I’m convinced that people can choose who they want in the room. There have been many instances when family is all around constantly, and then at the moment they step outside because nurses are doing something, this is the moment that death comes, almost like they are sparing their family from witnessing the final moment. Many people pass away in the middle of the night, I think, just for this reason. Once I did an exercise of “what would you do if you had 24 hours to live?” (assuming you were lucid and able to do things). I wrote that in my last 24 hours, I would want to go to confession, receive Holy Communion, eat a favorite food like ice cream, and see close friends and family. In my final hours, I would want to see my wife and son together, then spend time with each alone, and in my very last hour, I would actually want to spend that alone, in prayer and in thought, preparing to meet the Lord. That’s not because I don’t love my family. However, at the VERY end, I would want ALL my thoughts on the Lord, my personal repentance, salvation and everlasting life. Thus, we should not feel guilty if we are at the bedside constantly, and then our loved passes when we’ve stepped away for five minutes.

The above verse from Exodus 17:12 refers to a battle of the Israelites with the Amalekites, when every time Moses held up his hands, Israel prevailed and when he lowered his hands, Amalek prevailed. Moses needed help holding up his hands, and perhaps at times, his adrenaline kicked in and he could hold them himself. We should be sensitive to helping our loved ones appropriately. There will be times when holding their hands and other measures are appropriate and helpful and other times they might just wish to be alone with their thoughts.

Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away though my groaning all day long. For day and night Thy hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to Thee, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord”; then Thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin. Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to Thee; at a time of distress, in the rush of great waters, they shall not reach him. Thou art a hiding place for me, Thou preservest me from trouble; Thou dost encompass me with deliverance. I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not keep with you. May are the pangs of the wicked; but steadfast love surrounds him who trusts in the Lord. Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in the Lord! Psalm 32

Be thoughtful, sensitive and present for your loved ones, especially when their passing is imminent.


Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis

Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website! Fr. Stavros has produced multiple books, you can view here: https://amzn.to/3nVPY5M


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