Fifteen years ago, my mother-in-law was an active, vibrant, independent 80-year-old when she was suddenly struck down by a devastating stroke.

I recently re-read my journal from the days after Gertrud’s stroke. It was such a time of uncertainty and confusion. She had been placed on a ventilator and was being hydrated intravenously and fed through a nasal gastric tube. She lay in ICU for four days, completely unresponsive. We faced a difficult decision.

Here is what I wrote on 27 January 1997:


3:00 p.m. – The neurosurgeon arrives. The decisions does not take long. The process is disturbingly unceremonious. We stand around in the main area of  ICU while the doctor examines “the patient.” After a short exam, he appears and confronts Heather asking, “Would your mother want to live in a nursing home?”  He assures us that she will never speak or walk again. There seems to be no room for questions. There is really no decision to be made. We agree that she should be taken off the ventilator.

Heather asks about food. The doctor replies, “Why would you feed her?”

All forms of life-support are to be removed. We will allow nature “to take its course”. There seems to be no hope. Gertrud will live no more than three weeks.

Time stands still. We are aware of nothing around us. This is the end.

After all the tubes have been removed, we go into the glassed in cubicle where Gertrud’s body is lying. Gertrud looks more herself now. She seems a little more at peace. She takes quiet shallow breaths. Heather smooths her mother’s hair and strokes her hand. She kisses Gertrud’s wrinkled slightly sunken cheek.

Heather and I hold hands. We thank God for this life and commend Gertrud to God’s gracious keeping. She has had a wonderful life. We feel ready, now that we know the direction things are going to take, to release her into the loving hands of God.

8:45 p.m. – Gertrud has been moved out of ICU into a private room. We bring the girls to the hospital to say goodbye to their Grandma. Heather leads the way into Gertrud’s room and around the end of of the bed. She greets her mother with a cheery, “Hello Mummy.” Gertrud’s eyes pop open. There is a clarity in her eyes which stuns us. Gertrud smiles a broad smile and looks for a moment almost like her normal self. She grunts and moves her head.

In five days Gertrud has never shown this much responsiveness. She looks so much more comfortable without the ventilator tube down her throat, and the nasal gastric tube removed, and the IV taken out.

It is hard to tell how aware Gertrud is. She is certainly no longer unconscious. We left the hospital this afternoon, certain we were leaving a patient who would never regain consciousness and would soon die. This evening, everything seems uncertain again. This is a different person from the one who this afternoon we entrusted to a peaceful death. Our decision earlier today was made about a completely lifeless body. There was no Gertrud lying in the hospital bed when we decided to stop providing food and fluids. Her body was there; she was missing. Her eyes in the fleeting moments they opened had been vacant. There was no person in that hollowed-out shell.

This evening, Gertrud has returned. Her being radiates through a slightly crooked smile. Something of the person we knew a week ago does remain. Suddenly, decisions which hours ago seemed so natural, have become more difficult. It is one thing to withhold food and fluids from an unconscious empty shell. It is quite another matter to starve and dehydrate a recognizable family member.


Eventually, we asked that Gertrud be put back on intravenous fluids. She lived for another 8 years. She never spoke or walked again. But she had an amazing life, filled with challenges but also with joy and beauty. None of us would choose to have missed those 8 years.

I have been thinking about this because on Gertrud’s tombstone, are printed words from I Corinthians 13:8 where Paul wrote,

Love never ends

We saw in Gertrud’s final 8 years of life, the indomitable reality of love. As much as we thought she was gone after her stroke, something deep in her being lived on.Gertrud had lost so much of those things we normally think of as making life worth living. And yet, as limited as she was, she enjoyed a deep richness of life in her last years.

In Christian faith we affirm an eternal reality that cannot be destroyed even by a devastating explosion in the brain. It is the awareness of this eternal abiding love that Paul affirms in I Corinthians 13 and for which our hearts most deeply long.