Just pausing briefly in my day and briefly in my otherwise peppy blog series to discuss death. Mostly, because people seem to want to discuss it even less than sex, particularly as it pertains to them. (Both sex and death, on that account.) So, naturally I want to talk about it.
Now I’ll grant you that there are people who are better at discussing death than me. Then again, I happen to know a lot of hospice chaplains who go in and sit with dying people day in and day out, helping them and their families to face their fears, helping them to embrace love and forgiveness, often of themselves, and helping them to have a good death.
That might seem like a contradiction in terms. And certainly going down in a plane crash or being shot in the head, or dying in a landslide doesn’t immediately qualify. But then, I don’t know anyone whose been shot in the head, or died in a plane crash, or trapped in a landslide, so I don’t get to say. But I have known plenty of people who have died, and some of them I’ve given last rites, some of them I’ve sat with at the end, and I’ve done, really, a lot of funerals. And there is such a thing as a good death.
When I’ve seen it, it involved the dying individual, and/or their family, realizing that whatever else they wanted to happen, what is actually happening right now is that the body of the person in question is dying, which can be a process that takes days or weeks. There are those who will die quickly, be it from a bullet or from a heart attack, and the rest of us will die slowly. Now, that doesn’t mean dying in pain, it just means that the body goes through a process of, essentially, stopping what it’s doing. All those autonomic functions you take for granted slowly grind to a halt. And when that happens, we can resist and argue, be in denial and try to extend our lives, even though the quality of them at that point is worse than bad. Or we can call hospice, which is another way of saying, ask for help. The fact that the help we’re asking for is with dying does not at all negate the fact that help is useful then, too.
The other thing that happens, when a good death happens, is that the person dying has a chance to let go of their own accord. What do they let go of? Everything. Some people have emotional attachments to toothpicks, and though you and I may not fall into that category, it’s not just people we need to let go of and say goodbye to. It’s also things. And even ideas of things – all of the hopes and dreams that never quite manifested. Having the time and the place to get to say goodbye to all of things and people and ideas we’ve loved may seem horrible, and, well, morbid… And, well, it is the latter, if not the former.
I’ve watched people, both the dying and their loved ones, refuse to be a part of such a process, with the idea that even taking part in it somehow says, ‘I’m okay with this death’ and that resisting will somehow extend life. Except of course, resisting doesn’t extend anything except suffering. And letting go is something we’ll all have to do sooner or later. And heck, if we let go of emotional attachments and don’t die immediately, well, we might just be happier for however much longer we’ve got. Which is so horrible we have to actively avoid it, right?
It is better, if not easier, to just say it: ‘I don’t want you to die.’
Because if we can say that, then it’s done. It’s said. We’ve said it, and now we can move on actually helping a person let go of their pain and suffering, their failed hopes and dreams, and just help them to be full of nothing but joy for however long they have left on this horrible world full of pain and death. We could do that, instead of pretending that we can, by some heroic effort of will, keep them from dying by simply refusing to acknowledge that death still has power, here.
Sometimes I think about Mother Teresa. She’s become such an iconic figure of weathered goodness that I think it would be all too easy to forget what the woman did every day. She and her nuns went out in the morning into Calcutta and picked up people who were literally dying in the gutters of the street. They picked them up and brought them in, not to cure them, but so they could die well. She picked them up out of the gutters, washed their bodies filled with sores, put them in clean clothes, and showed them that a face full of love could be the last face they see on earth. And most of them died before nightfall. That was the ministry of Mother Teresa. And doing that for decades will either break you, or enlighten you. One of my seminary professors worked briefly with Mother Teresa and her sisters and reported back that she could be incredibly soft and gentle, and also sharp as a whip. If you could understand their work, and did not question that in the dying faces of these people, few of whom were Christian, she and her sisters saw a beauty and innocence that reminded them of what God is like, she had time for you. And if you could not, if you treated the dying with anything but the utmost respect, she had no time for you and your small-mindedness.
And what Mother Teresa saw daily in the face of the dying, that Light of God, is what can often happen for the rest of us when we have a chance to say goodbye and let go of all of our emotional attachments. It also means that the person who is dying has the chance to be so much lighter, no longer carrying the heavy load of guilt and misery, no longer carrying the expectations of their families, or perhaps just the expectations of themselves. Sometimes they become so light and full of light that you almost just make out the face of God in their face, and sometimes it’s obvious even to someone standing by their bedside.
Death is not good. Death is proof to me that we live in a broken and nightmarish world, no matter how wonderful it can sometimes seem. But I am glad that so long as we have to deal with death, there is such a thing as a good death. And if you or someone you love is in the process of dying, go call hospice, and talk to the hospice chaplain. It’s their job to help you through this and they’re very, very good at it. And no matter what happens, remember that it will get better – maybe not in the way you want it to, but it can always get better than this.
And to all the hospice chaplains out there, thank you for what you do.