I am feeling overwhelmed lately. There’s no point in enumerating the stressors in my life, because I know you have your own list. Today, I offer you this small but powerful respite. Sit down, lie down — be still. You can watch this music video, but you may find it more moving if you simply close your eyes and listen. Let His peace wash over you. Sing along . . . through it all, through it all, my eyes are on You . . . It is well with my soul. And believe it.
That title is a headline from The Onion and it succinctly calls attention to the elephant in every room: we are all going to die. It’s not a topic we discuss much, but maybe we should, since it’s the one unifying experience of all humanity — indeed, of all life.
I am on a plane somewhere above Nebraska, flying across the country to see my mom. She has dementia. She is dying. We say that of someone we expect to pass soon, but in reality, it’s true for each of us; we are all dying and the fact is we don’t know how or when death will find us. I’m sitting next to a psychotherapist from Washington D.C. whose wife died of cancer this year. Death is hard on the living. Which is perhaps why we try so hard to avoid thinking about it.
I’m not afraid of death. But it’s easy for me to say that, because at the moment, I’m healthy and “too young to die.” If the plane’s engines suddenly stopped roaring and we plunged to the plains below, I’m fairly certain I’d feel afraid. Like most of you, I’m not afraid to BE dead — but I’m not too thrilled at the idea of dying painfully. Like you, I hope to go to sleep one night when I’m really old and feeling complete and simply not wake up, passing gently in the night.
I have a firm belief in an afterlife, confirmed by sacred experience. In fact, I look forward to that life after; I am spending my mortality preparing for it. Perhaps it’s just the transitions that make us nervous. Birthing is beautiful, but difficult and often dangerous, not just for the mother but for the child as well. We don’t generally think of dying as beautiful — at least not in our Western culture — but I suspect we’re missing something important by not recognizing the holiness of the transition from this life to the next. It’s easier to see as we sit by the bedside of a dying loved one who is ready to go, easier than dealing with the shock of the sudden or violent death of someone we love. It brings up the unanswerable question: would you rather know you’re dying, so you have time to say goodbye and get ready, or would you rather go instantly, to minimize the pain?
I have little experience with death first-hand. Much of my ruminations on the subject are theoretical. I am aware of the risk I’m taking to talk about it here, when so many of you have buried parents or children, siblings or friends. Please forgive any boorishness. But Death is on my heart lately because I am not prepared for my mom to die. Are we ever? As I was praying for her yesterday, I could not bring myself to ask God to heal her of her latest physical infirmities. She’s been in the hospital and the rehab unit for almost four weeks now, and Memory Care for months before. She can’t walk. She’s not eating. She’s just aware enough to realize that her life is no life. I wonder if she is trying to die, perhaps unconsciously, but intentionally. And what right do I have to insist she stay, just because I don’t want her to die?
The paradox of our modern world is that we can keep people “alive” indefinitely, but what does that say about our relationship with Death? We spend far more money on end-of-life care than on any other medical need. And for what? When does our regard for Life and our collective fear of Death become untenable?
My mother-in-law died well. She had colon cancer, which she knew would kill her without treatment. She went to a couple of chemotherapy sessions, then said, “No more. I choose to let this cancer take me.” And eight months later, it did. I asked her once, “Are you afraid?” She replied emphatically, “No!” And I could tell she was telling the truth. Toward the end, we could see a new clarity and light in her eyes, as if the veil was already lifted and she could clearly see the glorious path ahead. But that’s all conjecture. I only know that she died in peace, even joy, her life complete. She embraced the transition fearlessly, with faith and a humble eagerness. We mourned her passing, of course. We still miss her, years later. But her example of dying well will remain in my heart forever.
Believing Mormons have a clear, joyous narrative about Life and Death, which makes our funerals not-so-somber and our conversations about Death almost flippant. Some think we are unfeeling because our grief does not generally manifest in extreme ways. But the peace that accompanies our understanding of Death as simply one more transition in our eternal lives is real and soul-sustaining. Our grief is certainly just as real. But we hear enough and have enough inter-world experiences with our dead to make it all somehow bearable, even beautiful.
I have much to learn. Much to yet experience. Our stories of Death are important, the difficult as well as the divine. We will all die, after all, but it’s hard to talk about because we know so little of what’s beyond. I believe those who live well tend to die well, so maybe that’s all we can do. Maybe there’s no difference, really. All we can do, perhaps, is help each other live well and when the time comes, die well.
How would you describe your relationship to Death? What are your fears, your hopes, your experiences?
I usually read three or four books at a time. Right now, my active pile includes 1) Tony Robbins’ Money: Mastering the Game, 2) a Fannie Flagg novel, 3) What’s so Amazing About Grace by Phillip Yancey, and 4) Ann Lamott’s latest — Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace. I read what I’m in the mood for in the moment. I lost Fannie Flagg for awhile, in the middle of a good story; she got tucked into a door pocket of our other car. And I was plowing enthusiastically through Money when Life smacked me upside the head on a Tuesday evening three weeks ago. I haven’t opened the book since. But I am devouring the two books on Grace, my soul hungry for solace, for divine sustenance, tender mercy.
Mostly, my life moves along like a transoceanic flight — tedious, squishy-kneed, but exciting — hope and adventure awaiting. But then the turbulence hits, randomly, unexpectedly, spilling soda and knocking me off my wobbly airborne feet as I waddle back from the toilet box. Then it’s just Hang on! Don’t lose hope! And don’t jab anyone in the head! Continue reading
I sat last Sunday listening to General Conference hearing the story of the Greatest Consolation Ever, listening to alleluias, smelling lilies…with red eyes and a broken heart.
The news of my dear friend (I’ll call him “Job”) and his out-of-nowhere tumor/sudden surgery/aggressive cancer/grim prognosis was fresh and raw.
This Easter I was incapable of engaging with the lofty notion of victory over the grave, with death that has “no sting.”
And, as if I weren’t feeling abysmal enough, I almost felt guilty for not being able to engage and rejoice.
Aren’t I a believer?
Don’t I affirm Life with a Capital L?
What happened to the faith I’ve been robustly building for decades now?
I say I almost felt guilty. And then, when I went a few minutes without weeping or being weighed down in loss, I almost felt guilty for not being sad enough. Didn’t I owe Job that much?
This is not the first time I’ve confronted death, grief and loss. I almost feel guilty about having to go through all this sorrow again. One would think my past encounters could have, what?…built up a callous? Enriched me so deeply that I would always and only be infused with faith, hope and celestial perspectives?
I know those tropes, and I see their ruses.
Would we expect someone who has just had a limb savagely ripped off not to scream or cry or react?
Any loss like this – the death of a friend or a failed relationship or a betrayal of some kind – is an emotional injury with its own messy versions of ripping, shredding and bleeding. It has its own ways of sending psychological counterparts of white blood cells to the injury to help, protect and heal it.
It also has its own time frame.
I’m now edging past the emotionally oozing stage, but that could change with any new downturn. This is, I have learned, how grief goes. Each occasion offers us our own convoluted Way of Grief.
Besides this most wrenching news about Job, within the last month I have been inundated with dark news about other friends’ calamities/fragile marriages/lost pregnancies/health crises. Yesterday I witnessed a dog get run over by a car. It’s too much.
We have covenanted to “mourn with those that mourn” and “comfort those who stand in need of comfort.” From my unfortunately fresh perspective, I offer some practical bits that might help develop those skills.
1. Allow grieving people (including yourself) their messy progress. Offer them your love without judging them or hurrying them. This is a real boon in times of sorrow.
2. Sometimes words that you think might provide consolation – like the promise of eternal life – sound too lofty to grasp right then and only emphasize to the mourner the immediate loss of the intimacy, vivacity and presence of the dying loved one. On the other hand, to some grieving people, these can be very soothing words. (so see #1)
3. Small gestures of consolation can mean a lot. Sometimes these mean more than words.
4. Don’t expect the person facing death (or an uncomfortable future) to console you. They have enough to deal with already. Be as loving, supportive and present (even if not physically) to them as you are able and as they allow. Accept (and give) the grace and help of your fellow mourners – but don’t ask it of the mourned.
Because I have traveled this desperate route before, I’m convinced I will not always be on the verge of tears. I will not always carry this current burden. I will not always identify closely with these lyrics:
“Swift to its close, ebbs out life’s little day. Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away.”
I believe I will again want to sing:
“Lives again, our glorious King! Where, oh death, is now thy sting?”
In July of 1994, my two sisters and I sifted through the belongings in our widowed mother’s home. She lay in a hospital nearby, unconscious and dying of a massive stroke at the age of 78. She lingered in that condition for nearly three weeks before she finally passed.
During those weeks, we hunted through the disarray of her home for documents, policies, and other papers that might be helpful for the disposition of her estate. It was grim and devastating work.
One trip to the dumpster behind her apartment complex allowed me (at last) to get rid of the embarrassingly poor plaster sculpture I’d made in high school two decades previously. I had never liked it, but my mom kept it in a place of honor. While there was a frisson of relief to see that thing go, my knees buckled with wordless grief when a set of Mom’s dentures tumbled with other “trash” into the dumpster, too. That she would never need them, never speak again, was more than I could fathom. My being the only Mormon in the family didn’t make my grief any easier to bear right in the midst of our loss.
My sisters Susan and Holly meanwhile had discovered Mom’s car insurance policy tucked into the 50th Rockford High School reunion program; stock certificates for companies long since defunct in one stack of papers; and boxes of old family photos – few of them labeled.
Holly pulled a small metal lock box out from one pile. Among the papers inside was one that baffled us all. Continue reading