God is with those Who Mourn

I thought that this class on death would better equip me, but more often then not it highlights how ill-equipped we are to deal with death. How inadequate words are. How necessary the feeling are as you experience grief when you are the one dying or when you are the one who lives on after they’ve passed.

As I look back on past experiences with death, anger is so frequent and so stifled. Our professor says it is okay to be angry at God; that pastors or ministers often discourage it but it’s sometimes a place people have to move through.

I thought quite a bit about it and as I reflect on God’s character, I think my professor is right. As long as we take it TO God. As long as we have a dialogue with Him about what this loss means and what we do with how we are feeling and where His place in that is. Because ignoring anger doesn’t make it go away and stifling it doesn’t put out fires of that kind. However, if we tell people they can’t take their anger at God TO God, they end up taking it out on others.

Yet if we take what we are feeling TOWARDS God, TO God, how differently might things turn out? We get to pour out what we are feeling and maybe God will respond. Maybe your relationship with Him, like many that weather a storm, will be deepened.  Take for example what Mary says, which sounds like there might be a little accusation mixed in with her mourning. Yet she takes it to Jesus:

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.” John 11:32

How about grief? Psalm 102 is a prayer of an afflicted person who then laments to God. Here’s just a tiny peak at what that looks like:

“Hear my prayer, Lord; let my cry for help come to you. Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress. Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly. For my days vanish like smoke; my bones burn like glowing embers. My heart is blighted and withered like grass; I forget to eat my food.” Psalm 102:1-4

See, I think what we see in that Bible is not that we aren’t supposed to feel the things that we feel when we mourn, but that we are supposed to feel it with God. Furthermore, I think that God is there with us in this mourning, whether we acknowledge Him or not (like the theologians I wrote about when looking at the Holocaust). I was at a lecture by Cath Livesay where she made the point that God doesn’t lose His voice, but we sometimes lose our ability or willingness to listen. You might call out for God while your heart still isn’t ready to hear what He has to say to you; just because you aren’t hearing from God doesn’t mean He isn’t with you.

 

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