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.

 

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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

Reflections on Viorst and Dying

In “The ABC of Dying” Judith Viorst writes, “For how can we live as fully conscious animals, the only creatures on earth that know they will die? How can we, in the chilling words of Ernest Becker’s great book The Denial of Death, endure the awareness that we are “food for worms”?”[1] It is a provoking question and one that philosophers, theologians, psychologists, doctors, artists, and many others have searched for answers to over the millennia.

The theory of unconscious denial of death that Freud proposed, making the yawning unknown that awaits us on the other side of death possible to be ignored, is a popular choice by many. We distract ourselves with other more “manageable” anxieties and block off parts of life in an effort to convince ourselves that we can exert some sort of control over the future. Yet it is only in the juxtaposition to death, as she points out through the words of poets, physicists and theologians, that we fully see and experience life. The character from Memento Mori probably best summed up the sentiment in this, “If I had my life over again…I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death… should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.”[2]

Viorst was forced to face her own mortality when she lost three women she was close to in the span of six weeks. Although she had once feared flying; it was no longer an issue. She realized staying off airplanes wouldn’t guarantee her immortality. Certainly, the best course of action in her mind would be to learn how best to die, if one must go through the experience of doing so. Perhaps this was her mechanism for coping with death.

She examines death in the abstract and the applied, using the example of Ivan Ilych. “The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself…”[3] Full of memories, experiences, emotions, joys and grief. And in the example, Ivan is further isolated because his community won’t acknowledge his impending death. Viorst writes that this mindset against speaking of death is being challenged in more modern times through individuals like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who wrote on the five stages she sees people pass through towards death.

The first stage is said to be denial, followed by the anger/envy stage.  Commonly asked within this second stage is, “Why me?” The third is bargaining, something offered if they can have just a little bit more time. The fourth is depression over present and future losses. A need for others to be present and sit with them in this time is called out. Last is acceptance; this is not a hallelujah moment but an absence of emotion and struggle. Instead of resisting their end they meet it “with a certain degree of quiet expectation.”[4] Not everyone makes it to this phase, or should, according to Kubler-Ross. Dr. Edwin Shneidman disagreed strongly based on his own substantial experiences with the dead and dying, saying: “…I reject the notion that human beings, as they die, are somehow marched in lock step through a series of stages of the dying process. On the contrary… the emotional states, the psychological mechanisms of defense, the needs and drives, are as variegated in the dying as they are in the nondying…”[5] Whereas Kubler-Ross felt that acceptance was often the implied end of the journey, Shneidman pointed out more often than not life was abandoned to death without any real readying, leaving loose ends. I have yet to have the breadth of experience with those in the midst of dying to be to discern for myself whose theory might be more accurate but I certainly think the knowledge of both helps me to be better equipped for whatever state I might identify a dying person to be in.

Viorst reflected on the ways three of her close friends chose to handle their death, and on the increasing interest in assisted suicide in society today, or even those like her friend who spend their time with the people they love the way they want to and then end it on their own terms. “The wish not to suffer, to stay in charge, to be remembered by loved ones the way they were motivates some to choose the hour of their death.”[6] While I understand our society’s propensity to run from suffering, it softly rings of the warnings I heard in the book A Brave New World, in which there is a society that avoids any pain, suffering or discomfort at the cost of maturity, intimacy, faith and intellectual depth. Interestingly, she points out later that Philippe Aries studied the history of death and “the concept of the ‘good death’ has been redefined, so that instead of its being a conscious, expected, ritualized departure, as once it was, a good death today ‘corresponds exactly to what used to be the accursed death’: Sudden death.”[7] Why, as a society, do we fear the death our ancestors hoped for and long for a death that was once viewed as a curse?

There’s another section of the dying population who wouldn’t take their lives yet also don’t view death as an enemy. “Death becomes a friend. It offers the chance to lay their burden down, whether the burden they yearn to lay down is the agony of a last illness; the helplessness, uselessness, loneliness of old age; the sufferings, at any age, attendant upon an unendurable loss…”[8] There are endless reasons why one might be ready to hand over the endless drudgery of their current existence for the hope of whatever death might offer. They don’t flee life, but recognize its inevitable end. One thing that Kaufmann postulates might make this easier is that we have a project of our own that we’ve seen to fruition; that we’ve in essence beat death in one place if we cannot beat it at retaining life.

This may be why some people experience such transformation near their death. Eissler even proposes: “The full awareness of each step that leads closer to death, the unconscious experience of one’s own death up to the last second which permits awareness and consciousness, would be the crowning triumph of an individually lived life.”[9] This is where we see the meek demonstrate courage and bravery or the shy become forward and outspoken. Their final moments are their last chance to be the person that they perhaps always saw themselves as becoming but were never brave enough to allow themselves to actualize within their day to day lives.

Immortality is the only way to counteract death, and this can be done through several ways. One is religion, which “Freud argues that such religious beliefs are illusions built up by man to make his helplessness in this world endurable. He writes that just as children depend on their parents to protect them, so anxious adults depend on gods and God.”[10] Another option is through nature, through the fact that we are part of an earth that continues on long after we do. We are made up of that ancient material and will merge back with it when we are dust. A third option would be through works or acts that influence future humanity; we see things like this in the great structures built, sculptures, works of art and literature, the rise and fall of nations, etc. Lastly, there is the biological continuation through progeny or even just humanity in general. While I can’t agree with Freud in that God is an illusion, I certainly see the drive for immortality in the behaviors of people daily. They want to leave a legacy, to be remembered, to have impacted the world. Perhaps this goes back to what Kauffman was saying. If a person has the sense they’ve achieved one of these levels of immortality, perhaps it makes it easier to go with death, feeling like they’ve already defeated it.

[1] Viorst, Judith. Necessary Losses. “The ABC of Dying,” pg. 306

[2] Viorst, 306

[3] Viorst, 309

[4] Viorst, 310

[5] Viorst, 311

[6] Viorst, 315

[7] Viorst, 320

[8] Viorst, 316

[9] Viorst, 319

[10] Viorst, 321

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.