Trust: Lessons from Those at the End of Life

Sun peeking through clouds on a dark beach

As a hospice chaplain, I’ve had the privilege of companioning hundreds of patients at the end of their lives. Each patient was a teacher and offered me unique lessons. But one lesson that I continually learned from these patients witnessed was that of trust—trust in the great unknown and trust in the process of letting go and leaving one’s body.

On my first visit with Larry, an elderly man, he shared that he’d had a near-death
experience in his mid-thirties. Larry remembered suddenly dying and leaving his body while going through a routine surgery. He recalled walking down a long hallway and being greeted by a man in a long, white robe. This man said to him, “It is not your time yet, Larry. You need to go back.” Next thing Larry knew, he saw his body on the operating table, and then he was back in his body, lying on the table and hearing the voices of the operating room technicians.

Fifty years later, Larry was at the end of his life. We sat together on his bed, and he shared with me a dream that he had the night before.

“I traveled out of my body and looked down on myself lying in bed. A strong understanding came to me—it is now my time. And I am ready.”

Larry also told me how, after his near-death experience, he’d carried an understanding and deep trust that death was not an end but a transformation. This knowledge was giving him comfort as he was getting ready to leave his body for good.

Sitting with him that afternoon, I felt privileged and grateful to witness his deep understanding of transformation. Larry held a deep knowing in his eyes; he was content and ready to go. He had no fear. He died peacefully two days later.

Not long after, I joined Sally, an elderly woman, in her living room. It was our first visit, and she too shared a recent dream. “I dreamed that I died and saw the other side. It was peaceful, and many of my deceased family members greeted me. I then heard a voice say to me, “Sally you have to go back.” Sally awakened in her bed with a deep knowing and trust regarding where she was going.

She told me that because of the dream she was excited to see dear family members who had passed years prior. As the sun streamed through her window, she squeezed my hand and said, “I am ready. It is okay.”

In that moment, a wave of warmth, and peace moved through my body. Sally died a week later.

A few months later, I met Bill, an elderly man, several times over the course of a month. Together we walked through the stories he wanted to process. He reviewed his life, many achievements, and important family milestones. Bill had run a successful company, and he expressed gratitude for his deceased wife and two sons. He also named a few people that he needed to forgive and was ready to forgive.

On my last visit, he told me that he felt good about his life, family, and legacy. He said, “I am okay. I am ready to go.” We held hands and shared prayers. I gave him a printed copy of a prayer about God’s continual presence and comfort in our lives. When he read it, he smiled and nodded. “This says it all. I plan to hold on to this one.” His warm smile filled the room, and his eyes held a deep sense of ease and gratefulness.

Later that evening, he told his daughter, “I am ready now. I am leaving, Goodbye.” He went into his bedroom and lay down on his bed. An hour later, when his daughter came in, she found that he had passed.

A year later, I met Holly, a woman in her mid-sixties and a devout Buddhist. Holly was determined to be as conscious as possible as she faced her death. Holly was dedicated to growing inward and spent years in deep self-reflection. On one of our visits together over the course of a month, Holly said, “Death is not an end. We go on.” Her voice was full of wonder and even excitement at the possibilities of where we move on to.

I was called to Holly’s home the day she started transitioning (the phase before one moves into actively dying). She looked deeply into my eyes and smiled. “I am going now. I can feel that I am coming in and out of my body.”

There was silence for several minutes. “I am in” she said, and then after a long pause, she added a faint whisper, “I am out.”

The energy in the room was electric and alive. I pinched myself to make sure I was actually witnessing this level of consciousness in the dying process. My eyes continued to widen, as I did my work of holding presence and love and bearing witness to her transformation.

When it was time for me to leave, I briefly touched Holly’s hand and offered words of assurance, gratefulness, and love to her. Peace and a stream of misty, white light permeated the large living-room space. Holly was not afraid. She embraced death and trusted that she was transforming into something greater.

I received a call the next day from her daughter, who said that Holly had died that night peacefully and with family gathered around her bedside.

These are but a few of the patients who I saw express trust when facing death. They trusted that just maybe there was something more beyond this thing called life. They trusted that life is not finite but ever fluid and continuous, with no ending.

Each of these teachers showed me the grace of acceptance, the grace of trusting the path, and the process of letting go and trusting that there is so much more to live into beyond this physical body.

Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of these patients.