Death, Differences, and the Naked Truth

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.

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3 comments

  1. Karin McCullough · · Reply

    So true, Beth! Prior to going to see my Dad for what I knew could be the last time, I saw a counsellor who asked me what I most wanted: “compassion,” I said. Somehow I realized that’s just about all I needed, and in fact that is just what happened on that visit. And it has continued to happen – the week of the inurnment, the weeks I flew my Mom out to Seattle to visit me and give her a break from being in the house all alone. Unprompted, Mom told me before she left Seattle that I was so compassionate and how much she appreciated that. Wow, how often do I get what I ask for?! And have it be the thing I really needed?!

  2. Katie Kidd · · Reply

    I visit an elderly gentleman once a week and lately he has begun to grow very sick. I am beginning to feel that tinge of fear as I head towards the nursing home because I’m uncertain what situation I will find him in that day. A handful of other people for the church visit him as well to bring him the sacraments, but none of us meet each other, we all come on different days. I was considering his decline after my visit today and wondering what on earth a person can do or say that would offer anything of value to the dying. It had not occurred to me that death, was an opportunity for people to come together and become closer. What’s funny is that very thought occurred to me in regards to new life as complete strangers come up to rub my pregnant belly and eagerly ask questions about this baby they will never witness. I knew through them that life is sacred not only for the soul it was bestowed upon but for every soul. A birth, no matter how distant, touches the soul of any person seeking a ray of God’s light. Considering that death is little more than a birth into the eternal…maybe the question to consider is not “how can I remove him from his pain” but “how can I allow him to teach US with his pain”?

  3. Very nicely said. You have a chaplain’s heart! Lots of good questions, inclusiveness and compassion. Nice writing.

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