Being Led Home

photo by Josh Scholten
photo by Josh Scholten

Nothing was helping.  Everything had been tried for a week of the most intensive critical care possible.  A twenty year old man, completely healthy only two weeks previously, was holding on to life by a mere thread and nothing and no one could stop his dying.

His battle against MRSA pneumonia precipitated by a brief influenza-like illness had been lost.   Despite aggressive hemodynamic, antibiotic and ventilator management, he was becoming more hypoxic, his lungs collapsing and his renal function deteriorating.   He had remained unresponsive during the ordeal due to intentional sedation for his time in the ICU.

The intensivist looked weary and defeated. The nurses were staring at their laps, unable to look up, their eyes tearing. The hospital chaplain reached out to hold this young man’s mother’s hands.

After almost a week of heroic effort and treatment, there was now clarity about the next step.

Two hours later, a group of family and friends gathered in the waiting room outside the ICU doors. Most were the age of their friend; they assisted each other in tying on the gowns over their clothing, helped distribute gloves and masks. Together, holding each other up, they waited for the signal to come in after the ventilator had been removed and he was barely breathing without assistance. They entered his room and gathered around his bed.

He was ravaged by this sudden illness, his strong young body beaten and giving up. His breathing was now ragged and irregular, the sedation preventing response but not necessarily preventing awareness. He was surrounded by silence as each individual who had known and loved him struggled with the knowledge that this was the final goodbye.

His father approached the head of the bed and put his hands on his boy’s forehead and cheek.  He held his son’s face tenderly, bowing in silent prayer and then murmuring words of comfort. It was okay to let go. It was okay to leave us now. We will see you again. We’ll meet again.  We’ll know where you can be found.

His mother stood alongside, rubbing her son’s arms, gazing into his face as he slowly slowly slipped away. His father began humming, indistinguishable notes initially, just low sounds coming from a deep well of anguish and loss.

As the son’s breaths spaced farther apart, his dad’s hummed song became recognizable as the hymn of praise by John Newton, Amazing Grace.  The words started to form around the notes. At first his dad was singing alone, giving this gift to his son as he passed, and then his mom joined in as well. His sisters wept and sang. His friends didn’t know all the words but tried to sing through their tears. The chaplain helped when we stumbled, not knowing if we were getting it right, not ever having done anything like this before.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

And then he left us, his flesh and heart having failed, to enter into a new life of joy and peace.

His mom hugged each sobbing person there–the young friends, the nurses, the doctors humbled by a powerful pathogen. She thanked each one for being present for his death, for their vigil kept through the week in the hospital.

This young man, stricken by a common virus followed by a devastating bacterial pneumonia, was now lost to this mortal life, having profoundly touched so many people in his dying. His parents’ grief in their loss, so gracious and giving to the young people who had never confronted death before, remains, even now a few years later,  unforgettable.

This was their promise to their son as they let him go, as he was lost to them: that he would be found, that he was deeply loved.
This was their sacred gift to us who witnessed this love in the letting go: such Grace will lead us all home.


14 thoughts on “Being Led Home

  1. I don’t comment as much as I consider, Dear Emily, simply because the other viewers might tire of my saying over and over and over how wonderfully you write, but some are worth the risk!! 🙂 This IS wonderfully written! And thank you for the verse in Amazing Grace I didn’t know; as a kid in church, we sang three verses and I’m not sure I ever looked at the hymnal as, by the time I learned to read, I had memorized the three verses we sang. So now I have a fourth verse!!


  2. Heartbreaking and healing. I remember the lone piper playing Amazing Grace at my father’s funeral. Yes. The promise of finding each other again in God’s presence. The Grace that leads us home.


  3. Dr. Emily, the portrait that you have so graphically painted here through your expert crafting of knowing prose is a sad, haunting description of a beautiful death…

    …the painful but necessary permission that the young man’s father whispered to his son to “let go,” that it was okay to leave, that they would see him again, that they knew where he could be found…These words, and the mother’s comforting caressing of the body that she bore twenty years ago, were not only a testimony of the parents’ profound faith and trust in a loving, unseen God but were an indelible witness to their son’s young friends and to all who gathered there to say their goodbyes…

    …the reaction of the attending staff, losing the battle that they had so strongly waged…some releasing their pent up sorrow with tears not often seen in those who witness such scenes often in an ICU…

    …relating the words and the import of Newton’s “Amazing Grace” to the young man’s death as he passed through the invisible veil and slipped into eternity and is lead “home”…

    …John Scholten’s exquisite photo of the leaf leaving its mooring on the tree’s branch, falling slowly and silently to the earth, becoming one with the soil around the place from which it sprang, in time to rise again in the tree’s budding re-growth in the Spring when all becomes new again…


  4. Emily, what a sad story, beautifully told. It’s the young ones that hurt the most, that’s for sure. Thank you.


  5. Oh Bill, I never tire of hearing from you! There are actually two more verses I didn’t include so there is more richness out there.

    On Thu, Jan 31, 2013 at 8:36 PM, Barnstorming


  6. Mary Ann,

    I know you see this far more than I do. It’s been five years since we lost this one and I still can’t start February without thinking of him.

    On Thu, Jan 31, 2013 at 11:24 PM, Barnstorming


  7. Thank you, Alice. You have articulated so well the impact this had on so many people.

    On Thu, Jan 31, 2013 at 11:06 PM, Barnstorming


  8. “This was their promise to their son as they let him go, as he was lost to them: that he would be found, that he was deeply loved. This was their sacred gift to us who witnessed this love in the letting go: such Grace will lead us all home.”

    Thank you so much for this. I am approaching the anniversaries of the untimely loss of two of my brothers. Love spans all times and things.


  9. Sr. Dorcee,

    may you have serenity in the memory of your losses. It is indeed the Love that allows us to feel peace.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.