This past winter break I spent most of my time completing a certified nursing assistant course. While I would have perhaps preferred to spend my break relaxing inside, streaming movies and shows, I instead spent a significant amount of time in a local nursing home with the facility’s elderly residents. On the third day at the nursing home I had the pleasure of meeting the home’s oldest resident — a 108 year old lady whom I will call “Mary”. Mary is by far the oldest person I have ever met, let alone cared for. While I of course was focused on my nursing assistant tasks, I was deeply impacted simply by the presence of someone this age. Only about 1 in 50,000 women will live to be this age and Mary appeared relatively healthy in both body and mind. Part of Mary’s care in the facility was hospice care. Hospice care means that doctors believe the person has 6 or less months left to live. Having the honor to work directly with someone in hospice care caused me to reflect deeply on my own mortality, something that I do not do much given that I am a young college student.
One of the biggest questions humans wonder about is what happens to us when we die. The Bible likens death to sleep numerous times. When Lazarus died, Jesus said, “‘Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.’ Then His disciples said, ‘Lord, if he sleeps he will get well.’ However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep” (John 11:11-13). Some may find comfort in this, while others may still fear the unknown that awaits them. Death is a central part of every single life on Earth, and death can be a very religious experience. Part of my role as a nursing assistant is to help residents connect with their preferred religious and spiritual services, so that they may work to find peace.
In addition to telling us what death is like, the Bible also tells us about the afterlife. Growing up in the Catholic church I was always taught that when I die, if I had lived a faithful life, I would go to heaven. That teaching also brings about a fear commonly seen in those with death anxiety — what if I did not live a faithful enough life? Some teachings from my childhood made the path to heaven seem daunting or even impossible. I later found out, as an adult, that this is simply not the case. It is not as easy as simply keeping the faith, but it does not mean you need to live a perfect life. A reading from the Bible that resonates with me personally is from James 2:14-17. It reads “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? … In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
The Hebrew meaning of the word heaven is “God’s dwelling place”. There are many verses in the Bible that describe heaven. For example, in John 14:2-3, Jesus says “In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” Lots of people say things like “On my side of heaven…” or “When I go to heaven…” to describe what they hope heaven is like. Truthfully I struggle with these depictions, this individualized idea of what heaven will look like. When I think about heaven, I can’t picture it; I can’t picture anything. But the Bible also tries to describe to us what it will look like. Paradise has come to be a synonym for heaven, as Christians associate it with the garden of Eden, symbolizing the presence of the Lord. As a result, some may picture heaven as a lush garden with the tree of life. Others will picture heaven as a city in the clouds, a depiction commonly seen in books, films, and other popular culture.
With Ash Wednesday and Easter rapidly approaching, now seems as good a time as ever to think about death and the afterlife. A phrase commonly associated with Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return”. When God said this, He taught us to be humble in the face of death and the prospect of new life. A CNA’s responsibility is not to practice an advanced level of medicine or nursing, but simply to be there when residents need them most. I hope that my experiences with the Interfaith Fellows Program can continue to teach me about tough topics like this, not only through a Christian view, but as they relate to all faiths and spiritualities.