Saturday, December 31, 2011

On Death

As we prepare to say goodbye to 2011, images of Old Man 2011 passing the torch to Diaper Dandy 2012 abound. It's a hint at our own mortality - something that is all too rare in our culture that is often preoccupied with immortality of various kinds, or at least in seeming denial about death as a fact of life.

Though in my three years as pastor I have buried many people, I have been relatively insulated from death myself. Until the death of my grandfather last week, at age 92 1/2, between my husband and me, all of our grandparents were alive and doing relatively well, ranging in age from 81 to 92 1/2. All eight were at our wedding four years ago - something a number of people commented on at the time.

Longevity runs in my family, on both sides. My grandfather probably would have lived at least a few years longer, but 10 years ago he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and they decided not to treat it. In the end, the cancer spread, but up to the end he said he wasn't in pain - a real miracle. If they had treated the cancer, I wouldn't have been surprised to see him hit 100. Even so, he was ready to go. He felt that he had lived a nice, long life. He had recently seen most of his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and he was ready to go home and be with his Creator.

He was ready to go, and that made it so much easier for the family to accept his death, with grief offset by overwhelming gratitude for his life to the end. Not everyone is ready. A church member stopped by to give his condolences, and he teared up as he said, "I just can't imagine what I'll do when my mom dies. I don't know if I'll ever be ready." His mom will be 96 next week, and I don't think she is any more "ready" to die than he is ready for her to go. As opposed to my grandfather, who opted against life-extending treatments, both would opt to do everything possible to extend her life. She also hasn't wanted to talk about funeral arrangements or her wishes in the event of her death. She doesn't want to think about it or talk about it. And I think that makes it harder for both her and her son.

Of course everyone deals with death differently, and there is no one size fits all way to look at it. But it seems to me that one way to help our loved ones in the event of our death is to be as ready as we can be for it ourselves. This includes making plans - wills, advanced directives, medical directives, and such - and letting family members know about one's wishes and desires. In times of medical crisis or loss, decision making is particularly difficult, both cognitively and emotionally. I have seen much more peace with families who are able to make decisions knowing that it was what their loved one wanted.

We all know that death is coming, sooner or later. Some know that it will be sooner, and in those cases, preparing for the inevitable is a gift to loved ones. But we never really know when death will come, and though we may never be "ready," there are things we can do at any age to prepare for it. Make sure your house and finances are in order. Create living wills or advanced directives. Communicate with your family now what your wishes would be in the event of a medical emergency or death. And talk about it. Not morbidly, but openly.

Churches can do more in this respect. In a culture in which death is almost a taboo subject, in which it is treated like an illness to be cured, the church can speak. Death is part of life as we know it. In the service of witness to the resurrection (the Presbyterian name for the funeral or memorial service), we acknowledge that death is as much a part of life as birth, and that in death, our baptisms are complete. Though we worship an eternally living God, we also follow a savior who willingly gave himself up to die. Even as he spoke, "It is finished," and gave up his last breath, that was not the end of the story. One day we will each breathe a last breath, but that will not be the end of the story. It is a completion of one story and the start of another - of this we are assured through Jesus Christ.

I don't know what that new story looks like. I don't know when or how this story will end, but I know that it will. And I know that the ending of this story is written as surely as it began. I don't know if I will ever be "ready" - for my death or the death of loved ones - but I want to try to be, as much as is possible.  So as the chubby baby ushers in 2012, as we think about new beginnings, maybe we can also think about ending things well. That, in and of itself, feels like a new beginning to me.

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