I can barely remember the dreaded phone call. Most of us know deep down that this kind of call will come at some point—likely in the middle of the night—and our lives will be changed forever. Mine came in the middle of a 17-day trip overseas.

It was my first international trip for work, visiting schools and churches in China, Kenya, and Uganda. I was both nervous and excited. My dad commended it as a career opportunity, while my mom was more apprehensive.

I had my own worries about them both—Dad in and out of the ER in recent months, Mom with symptoms of undiagnosed dementia. It was enough for me to tell them outright before I left: “Do not have a major crisis and do not die while I’m away.” It was a real concern, but an impossible request. My dad said, “I’ll try.” My mom replied, “Who do you think I am, God?”

So I was off, a haze of marathon flights, airport lounges, and Ebola health checks on days we travelled and packed days with inspiring people of faith when we arrived. I met first-generation Christians in China and talked with teachers working in impoverished slums in Kenya. During the last leg of our trip, a Ugandan boy whispered to me, “Jesus saved my life.” It had been a lot to take in: the travel, the cultural adjustments, the people, and the great need I saw all over.

As my colleagues debriefed one night, my boss took a phone call. I thought he was chatting with his wife. But then he waved me over. At first I didn’t take him seriously, but next he said all I needed to know: “Amy, it’s your sister.” That was it. I immediately predicted why she called—my dad had died. Everything went numb.

My sister later told me I replied, “Thank you for the information,” and hung up. I was in shock. I thought my weekly encounters with pain and sorrow through years of hospice work had prepared me for the death of my parents. I was wrong.

Lessons from Hospice

We’re never truly ready for a loved one’s death or last days, but barely any of us even try to be. Our culture lacks the real, meaningful conversations we need to have about death. We change the subject and avert our view to avoid facing it. Our elderly are warehoused in institutions and out of sight.

Our lack of context for suffering and death makes hospice a jarring place, filled with fear and distress. Spiritual care during this time takes on extra urgency. Leading a volunteer program at our local hospice organization, I pray with patients, listen to them, and camp out in the Scripture. I labor with people toward death.

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I’ve sat with men and women as they’ve taken their last breaths; one passed while I sang the fifth verse of “Amazing Grace.” During a 4 a.m. death vigil, when the end is imminent, I’ve been lulled to sleep by oxygen machines, only to be jolted awake by the “death rattle”—the sound of fluids in the throat when a person is no longer able to swallow—or their last gasps for breath.

There are no strangers in hospice. I’ve held hands, kept secrets, digested the most painful stories, and grieved alongside moms, dads, sisters, sons, daughters, and best friends. I once stood holding hands with a large African American family around a hospital bed after their matriarch passed away. I prayed out loud as they wept and shouted “amen” after each string of words. Their mother had been sick for some time, but the finality of death brought about deep, new grief.

But despite our bonds in the halls of hospice, none of these people were my loved ones, my family. The bravado I felt facing my parents’ death dissipated with that single phone call. My head was guarded; my heart was not.

The Weight of Grief

Seconds after the call, my colleague, Kerry, followed me back to my room to pack. I rebuffed offers of prayer. I sat in the dark trying to manage the shock. The thought, “I’ll never measure up now,” crept through my heart—something I thought I resolved years ago. That was another dynamic I observed at hospice that now played out in my own family. For relationships marked by profound brokenness, death magnifies a lack of resolution.

That night, grief laid heavy on my body. My joints ached, and I struggled with shortness of breath. As much as I tried to be at peace—Psalms playing on my iPhone, prayer coming from my lips—the comfort of God escaped me. I felt bereft and utterly alone.

I chose to accompany my colleagues to a school the morning after my father died. The lesson for the day focused on pain and death. A young girl cried out that she and her mother did not have enough to eat, and it made her afraid. I cried and felt her fear as my own as I watched the teacher sow Jesus into this girl’s pain.

On the way to the airport and through each leg of the trip, friends replied to a plea for prayer I sent to several of them on Facebook.

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Picture us holding your hands in prayer during this difficult journey.

You’re almost home, brave friend.

Woke up at 2 a.m. praying for you.

May you feel the presence of the saints and of the Holy Sprit as you grieve.

God is full of grace for you. He is holding you, loving you.

So many people are praying. We are bringing you home!

Eventually, I arrived back in the states, my luggage bursting with dirty clothes and bulky souvenirs: satin embroidered shirts, carved elephants, a drum. I was sleep deprived, overwhelmed, and breaking out in a rash. And my dad was gone.

Ministry of Presence

My hospice ministry is centered on presence and time. These are perhaps the most significant gifts we can offer in our busy world.

Following my dad’s death, I felt as though I failed to connect with my faith in the midst of a significant trial. But amid my pain and grief and failure, my friends lent their faith to me. They provided a ministry of presence and strength that carried me through the darkness and thousands of miles.

I think of Ecclesiastes 4:9-12:

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. (ESV)

From Uganda to now, in the weeks after my dad’s funeral, the Lord has been close to me, and my friends have been there to remind me of that reality. They were a cord not broken.

I’m often asked what kind of death is most difficult on loved ones—when goodbye extends over a long period or when a person dies suddenly. I try not to weigh or scale the suffering. Death is shocking and ridden with sorrow, no matter how and when it comes. My family is still reeling from my father’s death.

But as I emerge from the fog of the past several weeks, as I return to sitting and talking and praying with hospice patients again, I know more intimately the pain of grief. But more importantly, I know a God who stays with us through this pain, a God who himself operates through a ministry of presence.

Amy Tracy is a blogger, author, and writer in global missions at David C Cook. She lives in community with her much loved Colorado family—two best friends, four kids, four dogs, four hamsters, three horses, a cat, and a big floppy eared bunny named Gus. She can be reached on Twitter at @TheRealAmyTracy.