Imagine with me: sitting at the bed of a family member who is extremely ill, perhaps dying. Their closest and dearest have gathered. Some you haven’t spent much time with for a long while. But they have come from distance, through questions, tears, numbness, and obligation (in the best sense of that old-fashioned word). They have come to be present. Hugs. Hands held. Water offered. Memories shared. Old baggage stowed as best it can be managed.
Often, we want to be present for such moments. We want to be present for each other and for our beloved, who faces an important passage one way or the other.
I’ve been surrounded by this story lately, in the lives of friends, colleagues, and in my own family. What strikes me is how this moment brings to the front our core beliefs about the nature of Life, Death, and The Meaning Of It All.
Is death a simple biological process? Once the body’s systems shut down, does it simply end? Can the will or spirit actually prolong or alter the course of things? Can that person hear you or feel you holding her hands? Is it a sentimental gesture to continue speaking to them, a denial mechanism distancing ourselves from the harsh truth? Or is it an ultimate act of generosity, accompanying them in a journey that very well may be terrifying? Is it a mystery? Or is one pretty darned sure what’s really going down and what’s b.s.?
Certainly part of the purpose of these bedside gatherings is to aid those of us being left behind. What happens when we need very different things? For some of us prayer and song gives voice to our very heart. For others, such expressions are nails on a chalkboard that drive them from the room and from any truthful exchanges with their companions who are so oddly different.
I wish I were more skillful in making room for these different cultures in the death vigil. It’s almost all I can do to simply see and name it. The Celtic Christians call this a “thin place”, a place where the physical world and the spiritual world are unusually close.
It can also be a thin place in how our baggage, our insulating fat is gone. We are more nakedly who we are. In thin places I long to be accepted, embraced for who I am. For others to say, “I’ve stood where you stand.” Yet in this room, we may be too far apart in beliefs to say that with any honesty. At the same time the chasm of death grows between us and the one in bed, distances can also stretch wider between those of us left behind.
At such a moment, when difference can divide, I wish for us all compassion. Compassion to allow our companions the open air to speak in their own ways without taking offense or making judgement. I am humbly grateful to have received that blessed spaciousness. “Intent is what matters,” my brother told me, “That’s how you have to measure.”
May the atheists, and the born-agains, and the pagans, and the contemplatives, and the pragmatists (who don’t really care what you believe so long as the leaves get raked and folks are fed) — may they all be welcomed into the circle. May they be allowed breaks to go be with their own kindred types. May our compassion be greater than our holy cows or our rational constructs. May we reach across difference, take hands, and be. Together.