Jesus Mourned

As I walk through this class and the death I am surrounded by I realize how ill equipped the average Christian is for those who are dying and those who have lost someone to death. They might even experience shame over their own experience with grief. Perhaps we should consider Jesus’ response to the death of his friend as well as those in mourning:

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept.” John 11:32-35

Are some of us not able to relate to Mary in times of loss, going to God and saying, “Lord, if you had been here, this person I had love would not have died.” While it is true that Jesus later, because he was moved again, raised Lazarus from the dead, this was not his first response. Jesus’ first response was to weep with them. He mourned with them. He did not try to get them to skip over the natural state of broken heartedness at the loss of the person no longer sharing this life with them, or ignore the fact that their day to day life would be radically transformed by his absence. He wept with them.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Matthew 5:4

Reflections on “Final Gifts”: Permission to Die, Birth and Death, and the Value of Reconciliation

I found Final Gifts by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley to be a powerful insight into the lives of three different groups of people: nurses for the dying, the family and friends of the dying and the dying themselves. It looks at “Nearing Death Awareness,” or the increasing awareness one has when one is dying over a long period of time, the actual experience of it and what they need in order to die peacefully. Three concepts I felt really stood out to me and that I feel I can apply immediately in the future were the idea that the dying often need permission to die, the relationship between birth and death and the value of reconciliation and the role we can play in it.

It was helpful for me to acknowledge the truth that dying people often need permission to die; receiving it can provide a great amount of relief and the withholding of it can make the process of death longer and more challenging. This is likely due to what they are trying to communicate and why: “The dying often use the metaphor of travel to alert those around them that it is time for them to die. They also have a deep concern about the welfare of those they love, asking themselves, ‘Do they understand? Are they going to be alright?’[1] In the example of Ellen, her family struggled at first to understand that she was trying to communicate that she was dying to them. This increased the level of stress and anxiety for both Ellen and her family.  Once they realized that she was likely referring to heaven, they went in and comforted and affirmed her. “Ellen’s family provided what she needed by letting her know they understood the messages she was so desperately trying to give them-‘I am dying, it is time for my journey from this life, I need to know you understand and are ready; I need your permission to go.’”[2] While I have never witnessed this, I have heard stories from people about someone they love “constantly agitated towards the end.” I’ve also encountered people in homes who didn’t seem to make any sense and they were generally dismissed. This idea encourages me to approach people not only with a heart of compassion but with a belief that there is, perhaps, an understanding that can be reached.

Another idea I found helpful was the analogy between birth and death. As one nurse described, “I also feel strongly that, like birthing, dying can be an opportunity for the whole family to share positive experiences, rather than only sadness, pain and loss. That is the challenge of the work…”[3] In fact, both birth and death used to happen in the home until industrialization and the twentieth century hit; then birth became a procedure and death a failure at successful treatment.  Recently there has been some headway made in both these areas, and both birth and death are now often possible in the comfort of one’s home rather than in the often isolating and unfamiliar hospital. Consider the difference that this has made for births: “Family members present at delivery share a special bond with mother and child-a closeness born of sharing that powerful moment. The deeper their involvement and understanding, the likelier they are to come away with a sense of learning and growth.”[4] This same thing could be said for those who experience death alongside loved ones. Their deeper involvement leaves them with a sense that there were fully participatory in the end and the person dying is less lonely and fearful because they are surrounded by those who care for them. When I consider the growth and community that comes from birth I have to believe that the same is true for death and I see the value of community in times where people are facing a terminal illness.

I also learned that many times the most important thing for a person as they are nearing death is reconciliation.  “As death nears, people often realize some things feel unfinished or incomplete-perhaps issues that once seemed insignificant or that happened long ago. Now the dying person realizes their importance and wants to settle them.”[5] If this is request is understood people will often do what they can to assist the person but there are also times when the request is unclear, leaving the person upset or appearing in pain when they aren’t physically pained; rather they are suffering psychologically or emotionally. They desire peace, and to die peacefully they need either healing or reconciliation to occur in the relationship (often in the form of an apology or expression of gratitude). “Most dying people begin by listing their accomplishments, but they also will consider their disappointments-tasks not completed, opportunities missed, relationships broken or left to wither. As caregivers or friends, if we can help dying people conduct such reviews and heal damaged relationships, we can help them find peace.”[6] I saw this with my Father’s mother as she was nearing her own end. It was clear she wanted reconciliation with my mother and I tried to provide the best reassurances I could. That seemed to be a great comfort to her in those moments, as she was very fearful of death.

[1]Callanan, Maggie & Kelley, Patricia. (2012) Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying. United States of America: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. Pg. 74

[2] Callanan & Kelley. Pg. 75

[3] Callanan & Kelley. Pg. 130

[4] Callanan & Kelley, Pg. 30

[5] Callanan & Kelley, Pg. 137

[6] Callanan & Kelley, Pg. 153

Grief for the Dying and Mourning

It seems like terminal illness is a far more common thing that we realize. Perhaps because there’s a tendency for both the dying and the mourning to hide; they hide their illness or their loss, they mask their pain and so we think it far less common than it really is. There’s some similarities and differences between someone who has lost someone to a terminal illness and a person diagnosed with the illness but one thing they share is grief.

As the video, Living with Dying says, “Love and death are the two great gifts that are passed on, and usually they are passed on unopened…”[1] One son talked about how he knew his mother was going to die for three years and he thought he was prepared but he was wrong. The size of our grief, one could argue, is proportional to the amount of our love. The manifestation of that grief can either be physical, emotional or behavioral. Some of the more common physical symptoms I’ve heard mentioned is “…we often have a perceptual sense of unreality. Other people may actually appear to be father away from us than they are; they may appear small or dark. And there is generally an intense preoccupation with the image of the deceased, sometimes to the extent of experiencing an hallucination.”[2]

Emotionally, people could respond in alignment to previous readings on the 5 stages or go through a wide spectrum of responses. Anger towards the living by those diagnosed (thus antagonizing those closest to them) can push away those who are trying to help and leave the terminally ill in isolation. More unique to those left behind are possible feelings of guilt or hostility. Finally, you have the behavioral responses: “…we experience a marked inability to carry on the habits of customary living.”[3] For those experiencing loss, it could be due to the fact that it’s lost meaning now that the deceased is no longer there providing much of our purpose. For the diagnosed, facing the illness forces an evaluation of how to best use one’s time and to face the effects of the diagnosis.

Ultimately, to those who are grieving, the loss feels like an emergency. I’ve had my own friends talk about their frustration at the world continuing to move around them when this huge tragedy had occurred; I felt similarly when I went through my first major loss. Do these people not know how different the world is, I thought? Did they not feel the axis of my world shift… Similarly, the world of those facing a diagnosis seems the same. They face an invisibility where their illness is treated but they aren’t necessarily seen and those they love continue to live as they lived before. Meanwhile, the future they envisioned has been stolen. Even worse, as one man said in the Living with Dying video, “Many Americans I know have no support system and it’s due to the fact that the American family has become fragmented.”[4] Some don’t even have anyone to notice their life being stolen by a terminal diagnosis.

As Robert Neale writes, there is a close overlap between these experiences for the one who is experiencing the death: “The task of the bereaved is also the task of the dying… First, it means that the individual who knows or senses that he is dying is also himself bereaved… The second is that those who suffer their own loss have the same task as those who suffer the loss of someone else.”[5] Therefore, the greatest similarities are that the dying person experiences much of what the mourning person does, but the mourner does not understand the full state of the person facing a terminal diagnosis.

 

[1] “Living with Dying.”

[2] Neale, Robert. “Transformation By Grief.” Pg. 73

[3] Neale, Robert. “Transformation By Grief.” Pg. 74

[4] “Living with Dying.”

[5] Neale, Robert. “Transformation By Grief.” Pg. 83

God is Countercultural

These topics are hotly debated, but perhaps it is because they should be. I’m a millenial who grew up with mass shootings, I’ve lived as a Christian and non-Christian, and I do own a gun. But as a Christian, I have to consider what I am defending and protecting with my words online and in conversations. First, because God asks things of us as a follower and second, because we have the ability to bring people closer or further to God through our actions.

Sandy Hook. Orlando. Are we more apt to defend the rights of our guns or to demand some change? To say the status quo is no longer good enough? God, Jesus, calls us to the widow, the immigrant and the orphan, to mourn with those who mourn. Yet I see many who claim they are Christians first jumping to protect our rights instead of our people, and in the mean time we are creating more people who are mourning.

I love our rights. As a history major, I understand the danger of giving up rights out of fear or the desire for protection or security. I’m not saying the answer is simple or easy but we must look at our choices and as Christians, we should be caring for the victims more than our weapons. That doesn’t mean I’m saying hand them all over and melt them down; but we believe in improvement in our personal, spiritual and business life. It would be startling to think that some improvements can’t be made.

This, surprisingly or not, ties in to things like the death penalty. I don’t support the death penalty in cases where someone can be safely kept. This wasn’t always the case but my time with some Catholic nuns has shown me that everyone should be afforded every opportunity to repent and change their path; are we not all guilty in some way and worthy of being prisoners (if not of worldly law then certainly of God’s)?

I think if we examine other controversial issues like immigration, abortion, etc. we can start to see that leading with love and empathy might be the better foundation to build upon.

Vulnerable

Friends,

I am in the midst of some of my greatest struggles, and I feel more alone than I have in a long time. I love people but I have an ability to give this impression that they know me without ever letting them close. History has taught me when you let people close to you it ends poorly and so I built walls. These walls have created the very isolation I now struggle with when my life feels unstable. Yet God keeps reminding me to “Be loved.”

Tonight, I’ll be vulnerable about my desire for a husband and children. This desire is so deep and so full that sometimes my heart aches. That desire for children has only started in the last year or two and the husband not much longer than that. Even with my ex’s and their families pointing out my deep capacity to love and care for them, to build a home… I had this impression that motherhood was beyond my capabilities.

But I believe God changed my heart. I went on a prayer retreat where we prayed for our future husbands, ourselves, God, etc. A tangible thing that came out of that was feeling like I should get off of birth control. This facilitated conversation with my migraine doctor which taught me what I’d need to know when I was getting ready for pregnancy.

And I want it. I’m taking these steps because I am hoping that God will show up behind this with a man after God’s heart, full of intellect, wit and kindness and who is ready for a home and family. Someone who loves community.

It’s why I’m selecting the car I’m going to pick. I could get a car that would work for now but I want God to know I believe He’ll show up for me here. I’ll buy something that will work for a family. I’m betting on God and not the whispers that tell me that the only one capable of loving me is God; that I missed my chance at a family because of the poor choices of my past…

God, I believe that these desires didn’t appear without purpose. I believe you mean for me to have a husband and a family; help me with my disbelief and heal my heart so it can receive the love you send it, Abba. AMEN.

 

A Few Songs

So much is changing right now and I get why everyone else thinks this should be so easy, so hope-filled. Why my “burden should be light.” I know I am making things harder than they need to be. But that is, perhaps, why it is my journey and not theirs. God is wiser than we are.

 

I’m not going to write much here but love, marriage, family and home keeps popping up. Sometimes I give thanks, sometimes I lament; often I do both. These songs seem to be speaking to me right now so I just wanted to document a few of them.

Centering, Emptying, Grounding, Connecting

The fourth chapter of Brian Seaward’s Stand Like Mountain, Flow Like Water looked at the seasons of the soul and I found many of his reflections profoundly helpful. Centering, emptying, grounding and connecting are the four processes reviewed and are all deeply rewarding and necessary but also have challenges that accompany each of them.

Centering, or entering the heart and quieting the mind, is the first step and for some the hardest. It is creating a quiet space for the divine to speak into. “In the words of Jesus of Nazareth, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’” (pg. 125) It is important to do this activity daily, even if only for a short time, to try to have a designated space, and to have it be quiet.

The second is emptying, where we let go and release those things we no longer need.  It can be thoughts, ideas, memories, etc. but they are weights that hold us down. Emptying out creates space for new ideas, insights, and growth. The author claims this is the hardest and often is accompanied by grief and avoidance. “Stressors are not so much a spiritual breakdown as opportunities for a spiritual breakthrough. Our moments of despair are the soul’s attempt to take that first step into the void.” (pg. 139) This is not a place to get stuck, as many do, but to rest in the momentary but profound freedom this brief emptiness offers. “When we understand and appreciate the balance, we can see how necessary the emptying process is to becoming whole.” (pg. 143)

Third is the grounding process, the space in which we are reminded of our basic connection to God; when we seek for insights from something beyond ourselves. Dreams and vision quests are paths used but there is always communication happening outside of these two things; it is often a matter of receptivity which is more a process then an outcome. “Just as you cannot push water uphill, you cannot demand enlightenment. Discipline and patience are essential in the grounding process.” (pg. 153) Another space you will find this is in moments of synchronicity, where we see that all things are linked and that the divine can speak to us through those ties. In other words, two events that might separately have no great meaning together speak a greater truth to us. This is, in part, what Sophy Burnham refers to when she, “…eloquently suggests in her acclaimed bestseller A Book of Angels, the voice of God has many mouths. Insights, inspirations, and revelations can come from relatives, friends and even strangers.” (pg. 157) To hear from God provides stability through the divine instead of our own foundations.

The final process is connecting, relationship. From the Apostle Paul to African Proverbs to Chief Seattle, our interconnectedness to each other and the world is impossible to deny. “From a Taoist perspective, when we see ourselves as separate from the whole, we not only distance ourselves from nature, we isolate ourselves from other people as well. In turn, this distance weakens our spiritual health and suffocates our very essence.” (pg. 161) As science began to recognize that we were all energy, Jung with Einstein formulated the idea of a collective unconscious, a universal mind. Later, in his autobiography, Jung noted that which he had labeled the unconscious could just as well be God. Shifting from grounding to connecting is found in both receiving and giving. Viktor Frankl, a psychologist and concentration camp survivor, “…wrote in his memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning: “We had to learn from ourselves and we had to teach disparaging men that it did not matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.” (pg. 164) This communal, interconnected life we all share asks something of us, and we give to it, enter into community and this final phase, through and out of love and compassion.

God and Us: Compassion Versus Pity

Compassion is made up of two Latin roots married together which means “to suffer with.”  This is an action word, it requires you to be in the midst of something. Beside the person in their state of suffering. What this can often look like is pity. The Latin root of pity is “piety” but most definitions (Webster) look something along the lines of “to feel xxx for.”

Does it sound like an almost indiscernible difference? Like they are interchangeable? If we think back to the most painful loss that we’ve every experienced, at that point we most likely wanted someone to mourn “with” rather than someone who felt something “for” us.  In many instances, a “with” versus a “for” can make a big difference. When I think of my best mentors, leaders, pastors, teachers, they were the ones that exhibited compassion and empathy, not pity. So where do we see this modeled?

In the book Compassionate Ministry, Bryan Stone uses the example of Jesus since he is probably the most perfect example of compassion the world has ever seen. Is it because Jesus literally suffered with every one of us, collectively gathering our sin from each of us and lifting it from us, bearing our burden. Jesus is more in the midst of our collective suffering than we are. We experience a fraction of the amount Jesus bears for the world. Jesus is with us. How then, can we model Christ? Let us look at the words of Paul to the Galatians:

Galatians 6:1-3 “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.…”

When Bad Things Happen to Good People… and God

This video is a lecture by Rabbi Harold Kushner and he knows something about this topic. The video is going to seem dated, but there is a lot to be learned from what he has to say. It is nearly an hour long but I encourage you to find time for the whole thing. Some of it might feel encouraging, scary, healing, uncomfortable or even dangerous. I would just recommend taking it all in. I don’t think you’ll regret it.