Pastor Steve Littlefield of Simonton Community Church and I have known each other for 25 years. He was my youth pastor in high school and has been my senior pastor ever since. I consider him one of the wisest and most influential people in our community. As a pastor, Steve has more experience with aging and dying and grief than most. I was fortunate to have him by my side through both of my parents’ battles with cancer. From waiting room conversations to quiet end-of-life chats with my family in our home, Steve has always offered consistent words of wisdom. When my dad died, Steve gave me some of the best (and most memorable) advice I’ve ever heard. He said “Remember, people will say dumb things. They’ll say dumb things because they don’t know what else to say, and that’s okay. Don’t worry about it. They mean well.” He was absolutely right. Steve knows people, and I am honored to introduce you to him and his wealth of knowledge and excited to share our conversation on aging parents.
Brooke: One of the most prevalent struggles amongst my readers is frustration- frustration with a stubborn parent or an unkind parent. What words of wisdom can you offer frustrated readers?
Steve: A couple of things come to mind. First, God tells us to ‘Honor our father and mother’ in Exodus 20:12 as the fifth of the ten commandments, so everything should center on that concept. Honor is something that should be given as a child, teenager, or even an adult no matter the age or health of our parents. Second, we should remind ourselves that we may very well be in their shoes one day, so while we think we won’t cause our kids frustration, the reality is we probably will, so extend as much grace and patience as you can while showing honor and love to your parents, especially if the source of the frustration is your parent’s mental abilities. And third, frustration is a normal part of most everyone’s experience, so consider it as part of the journey, but don’t let it be your focal point. There are plenty of joys too. Try to find them before your loved one is gone!
Brooke: As a pastor, you’re basically every type of professional counselor rolled into one. How do you personally cope with so much sadness and grief in your profession? Some of my readers have been caregiving for years now, and they are emotionally and mentally drained.
Steve: For me, I’ve had to learn to pray a lot and try to release each person and family to the Lord. I also make it a point to try to get away to a spot in a park, the woods, a hilltop, etc. that will change my perspective, if even for just a few moments. Yet, I also allow myself to grieve. Sometimes it’s with the families, but often it’s in my personal time later. God gave us our emotions, and He doesn’t intend for us to keep them bottled up.
Brooke: Many of my readers are no longer caregivers. Instead, they’re grieving a loss. What advice do you have for them?
Steve: Grief is a natural part of life, so allow yourself to grieve. And no two people grieve the same, even if they have lost the same person. Don’t put your expectations of grieving on someone else. I have also found that caregivers need someone or some place to help or invest their lives, so look for an opportunity to help someone else instead of sitting at home feeling sorry for yourself for too long. Even volunteering some place where you can be of assistance of any kind can be helpful to those feeling lost after their loved one is gone.
Brooke: Has your perception of death/dying/sickness/aging changed through the course of your career? If so, how?
Steve: I took a course in college entitled ‘Death & Dying’, and the first day our professor, Dr. Howard Starr, told us that the real title of the course is ‘Life & Living’ because death is a part of life. He taught us that being real with people, especially those who are experiencing the end of their life or someone else’s doesn’t require great technique or special skills, but does beg for being yourself with the person who is dying. So, I continue to learn each opportunity to be myself and treat others the way they want to be treated.
Just this week I visited a man who was placed in Hospice Care the day before. He is weak and says he is ready to die when his heart failure reaches a climax. So, we visited and talked about the change in his physique, his questions about death and his family, his chickens & the pecan trees in his yard, his military service, and he even shared a few jokes with me. But as I noticed him getting out of breath, I acknowledged it and let him tell me it was time for me to go after just a 20 minute visit. He didn’t need more. And then I prayed for him. I’ve learned to never leave anyone without praying for them! It may be my last visit with him, but I think both he and I will remember it because it was just like all the other visits through the years. I treated him as a person whom I care about every day.
Brooke: What counsel can you offer to anyone caring for someone in the final stages of life?
Steve: Read the ‘little blue book’ that hospice gives you! Now! It is very helpful and can give you insight to what is happening in the final days, as long as you realize every single situation is unique and different. And Brooke, you brought this up in the introduction, but don’t worry about what to say. Sometimes saying nothing at all but just being in the room or in the building is the best type of care. People will say dumb things, but we have all done that at one time. Just be yourself but be aware this isn’t about you. Also, I encourage loved ones to say goodbye to their loved one when they are told the person doesn’t have long to live. Sometimes that helps the dying person know that you will miss them but will be ok after they are gone. It provides peace to you and them.
Brooke: You’ve consulted with hundreds of hurting families through the years. What have you found to be the biggest source of tension within these families? What’s the biggest source of comfort?
Steve: The biggest source of tension and comfort that I have experienced is whether death arrangements and estate details have been worked out ahead of the person’s death. Many families don’t like to talk about theirs or their loved one’s death, but the reality is that when wills and people’s wishes are taken care of ahead of time, it can allow the family to grieve without having to focus on the details of each decision. Whether it’s a sudden death or a prolonged process, having the details ready eliminates a lot of guessing. I even keep a file of notes people have given me regarding their wills, funeral service desires, burial plans, etc. that I can give to the family when their loved one is gone. If someone dies without those matters at least discussed, it usually creates great tension and stress because things happen fast. I even tell the men in our church that I won’t do their funeral service if they leave their family without a will and instructions for financial, family, and personal matters. Of course, I will help their family, but it sure is much better when families have that information.
Brooke: What do you find to be the toughest situation for caregivers?
Steve: The toughest situations that I deal with for caregivers is when they are dealing with their loved one having some sort of mental issue that diminishes the real person they know as their loved one. Those are difficult situations, especially if the loved one has become mean, physical, or hurtful in what they say. We have to remember that often it’s the disease talking and not the one we truly love.
I have also had to help families try to convince their loved one that they need to get help, assistance, move, or make big changes, and those are tough for everyone involved as well.
Brooke: Having grown up in Simonton, I can attest to the strength of the community. People help other people. What are some unique ways you’ve observed your church family helping caregivers or the elderly?
Steve: Community is huge before, during, and after someone experiences a death, especially if the community supports a caregiver or family even years after someone dies. Don’t act like the person never existed, instead include them in the conversations after they are gone, especially if you are talking with their family members. Just being available and following through with families is a big help.
We have one lady in our church who is incredibly gifted at helping people walk through health challenges, including end-of-life experiences, so I often ask her to reach out to some in our church to help them learn how to talk to doctors, find experienced caregivers, set up hospice care, get a break for a few hours, and even how to just give care. Not everyone knows how to give good care or wants to do it, even with those they love the most. If you are gifted in this area, please help others and reach out to those walking through end-of-life experiences to offer your help to guide them in care giving.
Brooke: You have two adult sons of your own. Have you discussed end-of-life situations with them, and if so, how did you approach the conversation?
Steve: Yes, I have had those conversations with my wife and both our boys. A few years ago, I had to have a kidney transplant so we all had several conversations about what I wanted them to do if I was incapacitated from complications or even if I died. Then, I made sure my will and end-of-life documents were in order and easy for them to find. I also made a ‘Death File’ they all know is in my file cabinet. I keep an envelope in the file and it is sealed. It contains letters to each of them, a list of accounts and passwords, a sheet on my desires for services and burial along with my understanding they can change anything that they want, and also the start of an obituary so they don’t have to start from scratch. Every two or three years I update all of it, especially if something has changed for me or them.
Even if your family members don’t want to talk about death or dying, you can still create a ‘Death File’ that they can access once you are gone that shares your heart, emotions, love, and instructions.
Brooke: What’s your best piece of advice to anyone reading who may be caring for a parent or aging loved one?
Steve: Recognize that caring for a loved one is a privilege, even if it is hard! My Dad died in 2000 at just 59 years of age. He had a couple year battle with a kidney disease, but his actual death happened very fast. While I desperately miss him these past 21 years, I am so glad that we had already had conversations about life and some of the hard things of death. I was privileged to be at his bedside when he breathed his last, and I count it as a privilege. My Mom just turned 80 and lives by herself in another town, but it is also a privilege to help her with the challenges that come with aging, being a widow, and living alone, even though some times it gets frustrating! Overall, it is a privilege that when she is one day gone, I will cherish more.
Brooke: Do you have any go-to resources you would recommend for my readers?
Steve: Read the hospice care book Gone From My Sight, even if your loved one is not in hospice care. It is an invaluable resource that helps with end-of-life realities.
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