Sitting with someone who is dying is sitting on sacred ground. Spending time with those who have recently lost a loved one, suddenly or slowly is to find yourself in the presence of God. In our culture we fight death, deny death, and pretend it doesn’t exist until it happens. In ministry and in my own life, I have encountered God again and again when I have entered into grief for myself or with someone else. I lost both of my parents before I was 32 – I encountered God in sacred spaces in both of their deaths. In 14 years of ministry I have been allowed to sit with so many people in the presence of the living God even as death has surrounded us.
Death is the great equalizer. No matter who we think we are, no matter what we have done or left undone, no matter what burdens we carry, no matter the experiences we have had – we will none of us get out of this life alive. In the same way, loss is a part of life. At some time or another we will all experience the pain of loss. We have all been there or we will all be there someday; this reminder gives me compassion for those who walk through the valley and a curiosity about where God is in the midst of loss. If we know and believe that God is there, then we only need eyes and hearts open to hear and see.
When I was 16, my dad decided that he could no longer deal with the pain of living. Dad kept secrets from the world, the biggest of which was his hatred for himself and his deep despair about life. The person I knew as my dad was outgoing and gregarious; joyful and loving. The person who died that day was consumed with pain, self-loathing and truly believed that the world would be a better place if he were not in it. He really believed that we, his 4 children and his wife, would be better off without him. This death was traumatic – there is no other word to describe it. One morning we ate breakfast and when to school and by the time we got out of school our dad was gone. My mom held us together, gave us permission to feel whatever we felt including anger as well as the sorrow. Mom gave us permission to tell the truth about what happened – never expecting us to say dad’s death was anything but suicide.
I am grateful for the freedom of the truth. When a person dies suddenly- when they are here and gone there is a lot to process, a lot to understand and wrestle with; there is all of the emotion of grief and there is the shock of sudden loss. I am thankful that in addition to all of that we did not have to lie or pretend that dad died in a car accident. I believe that being able to tell the story – whatever the story might be is an important part of grieving, it helps to process the meaning, the loss, and the pain. While we lost dad in an instant – we lost mom step by step.
By cancer’s standards she died quickly – 6 months from diagnosis to her death, we watched her fade and faced into the inevitable loss together. With dad we picked up the pieces, planned everything and processed everything after his death. With mom we had time, we processed her loss. She was able to share with us her fears; fears of what it felt like for a body to shut down, fears of my siblings and I falling apart without her, fears that I believe most people experience even if they don’t talk about it much. I asked my mom (who was also a pastor) what she wanted for her funeral – if she had preferences about what we did. Her response was “I don’t care – it’s not about me, I am not going to be there- you do what you need, what you want, what will be best for the 4 of you. I am going to be in a far better place.”
In the end Mom allowed death to overtake her, but only on her terms. She waited for all of her children to arrive; she listened to her grandson laugh. She waited for her sister to arrive from work and her brother-in-law to fly in from NY. She waited until we were not alone, and then she slipped away; having heard that she is loved, that we would be ok, that we trusted in the promises of God. In the end it was easier to cry and to laugh, to tell the stories, to feel what we felt, to be angry and to be sad because we had time with mom to say all of those things to her as well as to feel them and say them after her death.
What is a good death? That I suppose depends upon your point of view. There are those who fight death, who deny its existence, who refuse to face it even as it is happening. For me, death is a part of living. We are destined to die – we are always aging, always moving towards something else. A natural part of how God designed us as human beings is that like the rest of creation; we have life cycles – some of us live a very long time, others live a much shorter time. I am thankful for the days I had with my parents and I still miss them deeply. In the face of death I seek God’s presence, trusting it will be there; walking beside others who may never have been on the road before.