Closer to Heaven and God's Arms
This story is an expert from Sacred Dying: Creating Rituals for Embracing the End of Life.
Katie was only 11 years old and the last three of those years had been spent coping with cancer. There were surgeries and then chemotherapy and radiation. She didn't have much hair left, and just months earlier the doctors had amputated her left leg. Her friends at school and all her relatives were pulling for her. Even her 13-year-old brother, Philip, was on her side. But the cancer had taken its toll, and it was time to face the reality that Katie was going to die.
I arrived in the middle of the afternoon. Katie was in her hospital bed, surrounded by her mother and her father and her big brother. She was conscious but drifting in and out of sleep.
“I know something is on her mind”, her mother confided to me, “But we can't seem to get it out of her. If we leave the room, could you talk to her and see if there is anything you can do?”
I sat beside Katie's bed, took her hand, and told her I was there to help her. She perked up, clearly wanting to talk.
“Is this going to hurt?” She asked. “I mean anymore than it already does?” I told her that the pain would probably get better not worse.
“Well,” she said hesitantly, “I mean, is it going to hurt when I die and God finds out what I've done?”
I was stunned. “What do you mean, Katie?”
“Isn't God angry at me? Isn't God going to do something bad to me when I die?”
I thought for a moment.
“Katie,” I replied, “who do you love most in the world?”
“My mom,” she said. “Well, my dad and Philip too, but best of all my mom.”
“OK, when you close your eyes and feel how much you love your mom and how much she loves you, it's pretty wonderful, isn't it?” She nodded. “Well, I think if you take that much love and multiply it 100 times, you still can't come close to how much God loves you. And if you are loved that much, why do you think God would hurt you?”
Katie was quiet for a few moments, and then in a small whisper she said, “Because of all the bad things I did.”
“Are those things making you hurt inside?” I asked.
She nodded and pointed to her stomach. “Right there. They feel awful.”
“Tell me what they are, Katie, and maybe we can do something about getting them out. Can you name some of them for me?”
“I hit my brother once”, she whispered, “but he was being mean to me. And once I got really angry at Daddy for making me come back to the hospital when I wanted to go to Jennifer's house. But…” There was silence. “But… the worst thing I did was to get cancer. It made everything bad. I think everyone is angry with me for getting cancer. I couldn't help it; I didn't do it on purpose. And I tried to get well, I really did. But now it's too late.” She turned her head into the pillow and cried.
I went over and took a folded sheet from the shelf and spread it open.
I said to Katie, “You know that time you hit Philip? Well, this is the knot inside your stomach that made that it made.”
I made a knot in the corner of the sheet.
“And here is when you had a fight with your dad.”
I made another knot. And another, and another, as the list grew.
“And right in the middle is the biggest knot of all, the cancer knot. Now, do you want your insides to look like this?”
She smiled and said, “No.”
“Well, what can we do about that?” She thought for a minute.
“I guess I can tell everyone that I'm sorry. That might help.”
“Yes,” she said. “I think that will be a big help.”
“All right, let's go call in the troops.”
I walked out the door and located the rest of the family in the waiting area.
“Katie has some things she wants to tell you.”
Back in the room, Katie was clutching the white sheet filled with knots, her hands white and tense. Her family circled the bed.
“See all these knots?” I asked the others.
“That is what Katie's insides feel like. She feels pretty bad about some things that she did and wants to tell you about them.” Her parents look surprised, but they waited for her to speak.
“Daddy,” she whispered, “Remember that time I was so awful when you had to bring me back to the hospital? I really wanted to go to Jennifer’s, but you made me come here. I'm sorry, Daddy, I didn't mean to cry so much. You made me angry, and I wanted to make you angry. I'm sorry.” Her father opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
“Philip, I was mean to you a lot. I took your favorite airplane once and hid it. I even tore up that picture you drew because I was mad at you. I'm sorry, Philip,” she said quietly. “I won't do it again.” Philip brushed the tears away from his face.
“Mommy, I was bad so many times, and I made you angry. And when I got sick, I didn't mean to. I didn't get cancer on purpose. I'm sorry. There isn't much money left, and I can't get better. I made everyone really upset, and I didn't mean to.”
Her mother gasped and took Katie in her arms. I went to the other side of the room while the family cried and held each other. The noises outside the hospital room seem to grow dimmer while the loving energy inside the room seemed to swell. When everyone was cried out, I walked back to the bed.
“Why don't we undo some of these knots?” I said.
Everyone giggled nervously. With Philip on one end and Katie in the middle, we undid all those knots, big and little. Except the one in the middle.
“Let's take a minute here,” I said, “and form a circle around Katie. Let's ask God to help with the big knot in the middle.”
We turned our hearts and minds to the power of God. As I prayed for Katie to have peace in her body and peace in her soul, Katie was bold enough to offer her own prayer for her sorrow and regret. Her father asked God to help everyone with all the feelings they had, and Philip added a prayer that Katie would never forget them in heaven. Her mother asked that God take care of her little girl and love her as much as they all had loved her.
As we said “amen,” I took the last big knot and I undid it, saying, “See, God wants us all to know how much we are loved. We can be sure that God is waiting for Katie right now, with open arms.”
“How do you feel, Katie?” I asked her.
“Good”, she said. “Like I want to fly.”
“Well, we can pretend you are flying.”
I took a corner of the sheet, gave it to each member of the family, and pulled mine back so that the sheet was stretched out. I lifted it higher over my head, and the others followed my lead. Katie laughed. We let it float back onto the bed, and pulled it high again. It ballooned up. We could almost feel Katie soaring high on that sheet, high into the air, and back down again. We laughed and laughed. And Katy flew each time, closer to heaven and closer to God's arms.
Sometime during that night, Katie died. There were many tears, but the reconciliation she experienced with her family and most of all, with God, led her peacefully through that journey.