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husband holding hand of dying wife as he says his final good-bye to her. foreground is Deuteronomy 4:9.

Photo by Canva

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Harry Reeder’s death: sudden, no good-byes

My subject today is final good-byes. If I had planned ahead for this, It could not have been more apropos. Late last week, there were two deaths in our denomination. One was very sudden and unexpected. It was the pastor of a very large church in Birmingham, AL. His name was Harry Reeder. As it happens, we knew him in Miami, when he pastored a church there near one Ron was pastoring. His kids went to the same Christian school ours did, but in different grades. (It was in the 1980’s.)

He was in a car accident where he ran into a stopped truck and was killed instantly. I have to wonder if he didn’t have a heart attack or something like that, but I’m not sure if they will ever know. He was 75 and lived a full life to the end.

But of course, he had no chance to say any final good-byes to his family and friends. I lost my dad suddenly as well. He was only 54 so there were no plans in the works for his death. A heart attack took him out. It took forever for me to get over it. I still remember the weeks of shock after his death.

Tim Keller’s death: over three years. over three years. long time for good-byes.

The next day, Tim Keller, also a pastor in our denomination, but in New York City. He had to retire due to illness and has had stage IV pancreatic cancer since 2020. He has done pretty well until the past couple of months when new tumors popped up and the treatment had to get more aggressive. He was in and out of the hospital on the weekend and came home to hospice on Thursday, passing away early Friday morning. He has been finishing up a number of books and spending a lot of time with his family–wife, children and grandchildren–and spending more time in prayer and reading the Psalms particularly. I saw some very interesting interviews done in the past few months that were very interesting in terms of his priorities as he was facing his final days and considering how he wanted to be remembered. His focus, interestingly, was on his family, not on his “legacy” as far as how others remembered him. I found that to be very refreshing. Sometimes, we get so caught up in our legacy building, we forget about the people most important to our legacy: our family. Both of these men seemed to really care about their families despite the busy lives they led.

This is the point in our lives when we start thinking about our final good-byes.

So this is the point in life where we think about our good-byes. Usually, we think of our family when we think of our good-byes and who we want to say them to and how we want to say them. We also think about what we want to say. Sometimes, we have the luxury of actually saying our good-byes in person. At other times, we don’t get that chance. We have to hope that we have communicated it well to those who are carrying on after us so the message gets out clearly and in the way we want.

Who do we want to say good-bye to?

The people we want to say good-bye to in person include siblings, spouse, children and grandchildren. We may need to include ex-spouses, step-children in the mix as well. Some of them may need apologies. The most urgent people we need to talk to…as in NOW, are those we have wronged or from whom we are estranged. They need to be made up with now. We need to make up to them. That is something we can’t put off.

Some of the things we need to include in our statements are the following:

  • Genuine apology without any blame-shifting. Accept responsibility for your part of the sin/estrangement.
  • Leave out all the snark. It’s easy to mix in subtle digs here and there, but they do nothing to help bring about reconciliation. In fact, they hurt relationship building.
  • If you need help thinking about how to apologize to someone you feel has wronged you, put yourself in his shoes for a bit. Where was he coming from when he wronged you? Had he ever been treated well? Was there something about your behavior that was similar to the way he was treated before and triggered an automatic response. It never makes it right for him to treat you badly, but it may give you insight into why he treated you the way he did. The saying, “Hurt people hurt people.” is often true. It is not a good excuse for bad behavior, but it helps to give insight. How might he have been feeling? panicky? think about it. as I said, it is not a good excuse, but it helps give you insight into what was going on inside his head and could help you in your apology and even how your behavior might have been very embarrassing, anxiety producing, etc. even thought it would never have affected you that way.
  • Once you have insight into where they are coming from, you will often have a feel for why they did what they did. It won’t totally remove the pain, but it will often help you begin taking steps toward forgiveness.

What do you want to say?

This will vary quite a bit. Here are some suggestions. You may want to choose from these.

  • Assurances of your love for them.
  • Assurances of your forgiveness for any major issues that may have happened or where they may feel insecure about your forgiveness.
  • List some specific things about them that have made you proud or that you appreciate that make them uniquely special to you.
  • Reinforce for them your concerns for their salvation or Christian growth. If needed, clarify it. Your embarrassment is worth it.
  • Put these in a letter if you have worries that you will not be able to remember what you want to say. But in person is always better.

When do you want to say it?

It is best not to wait until you are on your deathbed. Often, you are unconscious or hallucinating then and unable to speak as coherently as you would like. That is assuming you have the luxury of a deathbed.

One option is to say what you want now on a video or the equivalent, so it is there for those you want to speak to. Then offer it to them in person to view together with personal messages added. Yes, it may be stilted, but it will include what you want and will have the information you want to pass on. There are a lot of options which also include writing a letter. Think through the one that you are happiest with. Hopefully, you will be able to do part of your final good-bye in person so they can ask questions. That way they can clarify any misunderstandings. It will give them some closure for when you are gone and will open the door for questions while you are still alive. Now, I have to follow my own advice!

Only take care, and keep your soul diligently,
lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen,
and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life.
Make them known to your children and your children’s children…

Deuteronomy 4:9 ESV