Between the Lines: A Conversation with Joy Goldsmith

© Scott Dean

We recently got the chance to talk with Joy V. Goldsmith about her new Brazos book, Speaking of Dying: Recovering the Church’s Voice in the Face of Death, co-authored with Fred Craddock and Dale Goldsmith.

Joy is associate professor and chair in communications studies at Young Harris College. Her books include Communication as Comfort and Dying with Comfort.

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Could you briefly describe your motivation for writing Speaking of Dying, as well as what each author brought to the book?

I remember watching my sister, Pastor Janet, sitting just feet away from the pulpit—nodding in and out of a pain-killer-induced sleep. I was her keeper. Her caretaker. Central to my thoughts, though, was, “How can this church expect her to function in this role of assumed vigor and health when she is at Stage 4 cancer and so obviously failing?”

I also recall driving her from the hospital after a grueling day of blood transfusing, a result of depressed blood levels via chemotherapy. She was slated to preach that evening at a special service. I dropped her off directly at the church door; she was robed and miked, and she walked into the sanctuary without a minute to spare. This hospital-to-church shuttling could not be normal or good, could it? But it had become our norm.

After this service, she stood in the vestibule greeting congregants and hearing their troubles as they exited. I could not help but juxtapose this woman with the one who had been pasty and limp on her back during the previous eight hours with two IVs flowing into her body. She was dying, immunity suppressed beyond safety, requiring a blood transfusion, yet standing up and shaking hands with her needy congregants. There was no acknowledgment of her state, her decline, her dying.

But that was a decade ago. These events changed my trajectory in life. I was, at the time of her illness and pastorate, studying theater. Upon her dying, my passions shifted, and I became more and more interested in understanding death avoidance and end-of-life communication in America. My relationship with my dad, a New Testament scholar/pastor/academic, enjoyed shared ground for healing and grieving in talking and thinking about events in Janet’s church as well as his. We merged our thoughts and concerns with those of her favorite seminary teacher, Fred Craddock—living just minutes from me now in north Georgia. Our three roads somehow crossed at the right time and the right place.

 

What should one say to someone who is dying? Conversely, what should one not say to someone who is dying?

There is good evidence that those patients and families of dying patients feel disconnected from their communities, their churches, their world. There is also good evidence that understanding life events and losses is accomplished by finding meaning in those events. People enable other people to find that meaning. The great news is that we don’t have to know what to say or not to say. The bigger need is a deep presence with those suffering. Being there, listening, and sharing space and time are the loving acts that will supply hope, meaning, and connectedness at the end of life. Most needed is a mindful presence.

Typically we find purpose and cause in doing, saying, and acting. Once a point is reached in illness when there is little left to do, we can feel awkward, aimless, and inept. That is the very point at which our deep listening and presence can connect the dying and their families back to their purpose, their community, and their hope. This is the point at which our words and our silences communicate love that outlasts the experience of dying.

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For more information on Joy’s book, Speaking of Dying, click here.