When people we can’t live without die, everyone likes to quote John Donne, “Death be not proud.” Yeah yeah yeah, thank you for sharing. My father died of brain cancer when he was seven years younger than I am now. He was my closest person. I did not love it. My best friend died years ago, leaving behind an 18 month old daughter. She was my closest person. I did not love it, or agree to it, and just barely survived it.
My darling friend Ann Brebner passed away early Friday. (You were so incredibly generous to donate to the fund for her home-care. Your generosity has given me such huge abiding hope in Goodness and miracles. We were down to almost no money. She accidentally spent her life creating and directing plays, loving us crazily, laughing and listening to music, giving to charity, instead of investing.)
Maybe this passing seems less death-y, as she was 93. But believe me, she had done the dying part, the closing-up-shop part, the leaving-us part, just like everyone has to do. It’s death 101 for everyone here on the incarnational side of things: we do it with no owner’s manual (Death for Dummies?) , and at the end, alone. If I were God’s West Coast representative, I would have a different system in place, i.e. less mysterioso Ouija board enigma. More grok-able My grandson stood nearby her at church as she sometimes painstakingly got out of our car. He always called her Ann Brevner, one word. “Hi, Annbrevner!” I told him Friday night that she had passed, and his mouth dropped open. “AnnBREVNER died?” he asked. Then, “I wonder what that’s like? Dying?”
So I thought I would tell you what I know, because this thing, this aspect of reality, this weird scary aspect of life, can just wreck everything if you don’t figure out at some point that it is what makes life so profound, meaningful, rich, complex, wild. If you try to outrun this existential truth, with manic achievement and people-pleasing and exotic distractions, it begins to argue a wasted life. Everyone we love–and I am just going to add, in a whisper, even our children and nieces and nephews–will die. They will no longer be here, on this side of eternity. We Christians see death as just being a fairly significant change of address, but still, our most cherished people will no longer be here, to have and to hold, or reach by phone.
This can kind of ruin everything. When my son was little, he asked if we would die at the exact same moment. When I said, No, probably not, he wept, and then said, “If I had known that, I wouldn’t have agreed to be born.”
Do you want to have instant meaning and incentive and almost heartbreaking appreciation in your life? Live, starting now–as if you have three months left. At some point, this will true. Tick tock.
But won’t death be scary? Annbrevner’s wasn’t. Just weird. Her death, like every passing I have witnessed, was beautiful, gentle, sometimes hard and confusing, and completely doable. At some point, for almost everyone, it is like being in labor. Especially if, like me, dilated 7 centimeters after 24 hours of labor, you realized you didn’t like children. But in both cases, birth and death, something beautiful is coming. Ram Dass said death would be like FINALLY getting to take off the too-small shoes we had been wearing our entire lives. Think of that. Getting to rub those sore arches and wiggle those baby toes, after all these year feeling cramped, like Chinese foot bound women, tiptoeing to minimize the pain.
But back to my grandson’s question, of what dying will be like, and why, I don’t think you need to be afraid:
So many people will surround you, your dearest family and friends, both the quick and the death–Ann’s father, who died fifty years ago was with her; her son who died last year was with her. And we were with her, encouraging and allowing her to be real, to share her deepest thoughts and and fears about what was happening to her, and how annoying liFe (and we) could be. The most important you can do if someone is dying? Show up; listen; nod.
And maybe even more important, we shared with each other our worries, memories, sorrow, impatience, and anxiety about the process, how much more, and much sooner, we could have done this or that. We showed up, we listened to each other, we told others how much we hated everything, and how much we loved each other, we listened some more, we nodded, and put the kettle on for tea.
We let each other complain and not know what we were doing. We tried to remember what we DID know: that the great cosmic Something had always been there before. That the Divine It had brought us and our beloved ones through ghastly loss, disappointment, and failure, against all odds. That crying and grieving heal us, cleanse us, baptize us, moisturize us, water the seeds hidden deep in the ground at our feet.
Our pastor came to anoint her the day before she died, not knowing if Ann’s home-going was an hour or a month away. Hospice was on hand to help with the pain. (If you know your person is dying, call Hospice. Once Hospice is on board, almost everything will sort itself out, I promise you–everything. Secret of life.
Every single person I have loved and lost had us around–their most beloved–and had Hospice, had the richest most astonishing love and sense of safety at the end. They had peace, like a river. Even if their death was sudden, Grace always bats last. They got to take off the tight shoes. They got their Get Out of Jail Free card.
And after they died, stopped breathing and grew cold, we were there, to tend to their bodies in the holy sacrament of bathing and dressing them. Don’t rush any of this. Stay with the body so you can see that it no longer holds them, their life, spirit, soul, breath: now eternity does. Choose the perfect socks for those feet that carried them through their astonishing, hard, weird, precious lives.
Death? Be as proud as you want: bore me later, because Love is sovereign here. Life never ends. Joy comes in the morning. Glory hallelujah. And let it be so.