“When are you going to pick me up?” my mom asked impatiently on the other end of the phone line. It was a weekend afternoon and I had just sat down on the sofa after doing some house cleaning I had put off during the week.
My mind went blank. “Pick you up for what?” I asked innocently.
“The funeral!” Mom said emphatically.
“Your DAD’S!” she declared querulously.
My entire being went still. Dad died 13 1/2 years ago.
We had many of these types of conversations in February and March after a surgery mom underwent in February. The anesthesia seems to have a deleterious effect on her mind; she thought she saw dad at the hospital and dreamed of him often. But thankfully, she had not mentioned dad in a couple of months.
After several minutes, I was able to convince her that dad was no longer alive, and had not been for many years. Mom grudgingly believed me and we said goodbye. I called back to the nurse’s station to make mom’s nurse aware of the situation.
When I saw her the next day, she had forgotten about it.
Less than a week ago mom accused me of lying to her concerning dad’s death. She believed that she had seen him and she couldn’t understand why I would tell her that he is dead. Yesterday we laughed and joked about the ways dad used to play with my children. He was a wonderful granddad.
Recently, after an exceptionally emotional visit with mom, I thought about hell on the way home. I remembered former pastors over the years defining hell as “eternal separation from God”. However, watching my mother’s mind jerked from past to present, feeling fully every emotion connected to each event she believes she is living, then experiencing deep confusion and often despair to discover that what she is ‘living’ is not actual reality…
Imagine that happening to you on a regular basis. It would feel like hell, I think; separated from the reality of the world in which you live and, at times, actually becoming aware that you are separated from that world…yep, that seems like hell on earth. But I am no theologian, just a former hospital chaplain and daughter relating what I watch my mother experience – and I imagine what anyone with dementia or Alzheimer disease experiences.
Wayne Grudem, theologian and author of the tome Systematic Theology, defines hell as follows: Hell is a place of eternal conscious punishment for the wicked. A quick search of the Internet will reveal many opinions concerning hell. Depending on their theological leanings, the opinions range from ‘Jesus talked about hell more than heaven,’ to ‘Jesus never talked literally about hell.’
My mom isn’t a “wicked” person; before her mind began to leave her 7 or 8 years ago, she had a relationship with God.
It was as close as someone with an abused, adult child of an alcoholic with no therapy background could have, I guess. Add to that a ‘fire and brimstone’ religious history… I am thankful God lead her to a more grace-filled religious culture for a couple of decades before she stopped going altogether after dad died. I don’t know if it helped her experience God as Father, though; she never talked about it.
Our culture throws the word hell around a lot. It’s used as regular slang, to tell someone to go there when people are angry, as part of a regular cursing rant, or perhaps to describe a situation for which we have no words. Honestly, we DON’T have any words or understanding for hell unless we’ve read the few descriptions the Bible provides for us.
Words such as:
outer darkness eternal fire destruction weeping
forever and ever judged guilty suffering soul-death gnashing of teeth
eternally separated from God’s goodness*
So, in light of the literal meaning, my mom isn’t in hell. She suffers, she is confused, but her needs are met; she is loved and there is goodness all around her. Mom has not been cast into outer darkness or forever judged guilty. Life is difficult for and with her, but no, it isn’t hell.
Perhaps we need to consider these things the next time life or a situation we find ourselves in seems like hell…
I know I do.
*Rev.21:18; 2 Thess.1:9; Matt. 7:13, 14; 8:12; 10:28; 13:24-43, 50; Jude 1:7