“You see my calamity, and are afraid.”
Dying Words: These are the words of Job to his friends. Job’s friends made great efforts to solve and explain Job’s suffering. Job saw through the thin veil of their compassion to the naked fear shivering beneath. We want there to be explanations for the bad things that happen to good people. In the presence of terrible human suffering we are afraid. We look for explanations and solutions. Life doesn’t make sense and we want it to. As Christians, we are literally groaning with all of creation for the Day when all things will be renewed. That Day has not yet come, but the seed has been planted.
The dying usually don’t want to be dying. They wonder how their loved ones will get along without them. So they often try to take care of us. The dying caring for the living.
The dying usually don’t want to be dying. They wonder how their loved ones will get along without them. So they often try to take care of us. The dying caring for the living. Dying people learn intuitively what the living want to hear. We like it when dying folks have a sense of humor. It serves our own feelings when those at the threshold of death make light of their predicament or act dismissively of their pain. We especially like it when the dying mute their fear and face the Inevitable with confidence and courage. These things make us feel better. We then reward the dying for their “strength”. We say things like, “She is so strong.” “I can’t believe how positive he is.” “He is holding up really well.” “Wow mom, I wish I was as strong as you.” Their posture toward death lends us hope that maybe death isn’t so bad after all.
For some, death is a welcome stranger. The dying process can be so cruel and prolonged that death is a blessing. In these cases death is good only by comparison though. Death is still monstrous, an affront to the living. In the Christian tradition death is viewed as a natural consequence for sin. It is cancerous in nature. Jesus wept when beholding how we mourn our dead loved ones. For the Christian it is promised that death will be “swallowed up in victory.” In Revelation we are told that death itself will be thrown into the lake of fire in the last judgment. The death of Death.
Dying people usually have very complicated feelings around their experience. Our culture has developed a terrible allergy to all that is unpleasant and uncomfortable. Dying people make us very uncomfortable. Dying people are acutely aware of how uncomfortable they make people. Many of them will take their cues from us and act accordingly. In death, they will try to be what we need them to be. Some won’t cry because, “I need to be strong for my kids.” But in private moments, when given sacred space – they weep for the life they are losing. Others will say things like, “Well there is always someone who has it worse than me.” The implicit message is that my loss isn’t so bad after all – so don’t feel too bad about it. Then there is a whole host of dismissive statements employed that suggest the dying person’s demise is ‘no biggie.’ “Gotta go sometime.” “Well, it was a good run.” “Can’t live forever.” Or, as one particularly ornery nurse in the Emergency Department likes to remind me, “None of us gets off the planet alive!”
Dressing death in a clown suit can have acute therapeutic value in some cases. Those statements are often uttered to manage our feelings by blunting the sharp edge of grief. The person dying has intrinsic value in God’s eyes though. Their death is sad. Grief expert Alan Wolfelt explains that to grieve well is to love well. Anticipatory grief is the grief that begins before our loved one dies. Bereavement means to be “robbed, deprived or plundered.” The sadness we feel as our loved one fades away is real, healthy and deserves a place at our emotional table. We do no service to our loved ones when we collude with them to undersell their experience. If your dying loved one tells you that he needs to be strong for you, remind him that you don’t need that from him. Encourage him to feel whatever he is feeling and to feel it fully. If she tells you she is fine but you sense an ocean of emotion beneath the surface, she may be holding it back for your sake. Let her know she can stop trying so hard to keep the outside from looking like the inside. The dying have enough work to do without having to take care of our feelings.
Maybe you can be the safe place where your dying loved one can feel the freedom to lament, rage, cower or confess.
Maybe you can provide him or her sanctuary. One of the last things Jesus did before he died was despair.
The despair and forsakenness of the cross was an overture to his Resurrection. But he also did work on the cross, serious work for our sake. Most but not all people experience an urgency to get their inner house in order as the time draws near. Our need for the dying to “be strong” can hinder this vocation. As the dying soul is freed to work openly on her own position with God, the result is often peace. The ancients called this “Shalom”. Shalom is when we have made peace with God and our neighbor through Jesus. “Some glow before they go” as Hospice staff have been known to say.
What we can offer the dying is relationship. Relationship is the great promise of the Christian faith. As the Psalmist reminds us, “I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” God gives us nothing less than Himself in the blackest nights. In their hour of travail we can companion with our loved ones and be honest and loving sojourners. The hope is that someone will walk the long walk with us when our time comes.
The dying are like prophets. They have very important things to tell us. Their vantage point is unique as they stand at the cusp of the living and the dead.
The dying are like prophets. They have very important things to tell us. Their vantage point is unique as they stand at the cusp of the living and the dead. They have much to teach us about life and death, regret and joy, forgiveness and hurt. For Christians, dying is a season of meaning-making and life review. Blessings are bestowed, curses are lifted. It is a time of ends and beginnings, rending and mending, embracing and letting go. Death is the birthing pains to new life. Echoing our Christian ancestors we say, “Maranatha!” (Come, O Lord!)