Psalm 88: The End Psalm

Last Tuesday evening, my cousin went home to be with the Lord. She had fought a long-drawn battle with cancer for many years. Her treatment reached a stage where the Assisi Hospice at Thomson Road became the best place for her to spend the last weeks of her life.

I confess that I struggle to journey with people who are seriously ill or dying. I admire those who compassionately, patiently, faithfully journey with the dying. They suffer with the dying friend over every setback and regression, and rejoice with them over every step of progress and hope. They hold their hands, look at them in the eyes, listen to them, serve them gently and generously, act and speak kindly to them. I know everyone has limited strengths, but I cannot help but feel totally inept compared to these Mother Teresas. Most of the time, I feel helpless during a visit, and empty, worn and down after it. I sit, I listen, I hear stories and confessions, I serve the bread and wine, I sing, read scriptures, and pray, I leave, and I hope my presence somehow helped.

Kubler Ross observed five stages of loss among the dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I can recognize these stages in varying forms and expressions among those about to go home to God too. I do not try to control or fix them, but just notice them as they appear, disappear and re-appear as time went on till the sick persons come to a place where they are at peace and are willing, even wishing, to go to their loving God and Saviour as soon as possible.

Interestingly, during this period, I have come to Psalms 88 in my regular meditations. I felt drawn into its depths. It is such a sad, depressing, dark, heart-breaking psalm. I learned in seminary that such psalms are called “lament” psalms and served a liturgical and communal purpose for the Jews throughout history. I observed that this psalm does not have a hopeful ending to it unlike other such lament psalms. It is bereft of hope, except the address of the Lord as “God of my salvation”. 

This psalm is of one who has suffered from his youth throughout his life and feels like one who is abandoned by God, shunned by friends and about to die. I wrote on my Bible the emotions present: despair, guilt, anger, trapped, despised, bargaining, bewildered, lonely, abandonment, assaulted, hopelessness. As I meditated on this psalm it dawned on me that some of these emotions may have been felt by my cousin as she laid in the hospice. These range of emotions would possibly be experienced by those suffering and waiting for death. The psalm gave a painful but real sense of one who felt close to death. As I look from outside at all the pain and tears and pleas in the psalm, it moved me to be keenly aware of my frailty, my hour.

The darkness and pain of this psalm was not relieved by the three prayers (ver 1,9,13) that prefaced the three sections. The black sheet can only be lifted by a knowledge that these psalmists do not have: the blessed revelation of what Jesus death and resurrection accomplished for us who live under the new covenant. The curtains open to let in the Light that dispels all darkness and shadows, when we who know the grace of the Lord Jesus, affirm the great hope of a resurrection similar to that of our Lord who died and rose again. This hope alone can transfigure everything at any hospice and any deathbed.

Is the psalm 88 of any use then in this era of the new covenant? Yes it has its uses. For one it provides a contrasting background that highlights and demonstrates the complete and final victory of Good Friday and Easter over suffering and death. If there is no black night, we would never have been able to fully appreciate a beautiful dawn or sunny day!

I also feel the psalm can be a useful passage to pray with for people who are at the end stage of life. It will help them to express their struggles and longings, and to surface and process the authentic and real emotions and struggles they find difficult to label. It may trigger memories and emotions that the person can then reflect upon and talk with the Lord about. As this is done, ideally with a spiritual director, one can by God’s grace find a place of perfect peace, assurance and hope as he or she waits to be hugged and taken home by their heavenly Father. 

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