Reflections on Death and Dying

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Loving someone as they’re dying is a privilege.

I never thought I’d say that.

It is not a privilege in the general sense of the word. Death carries with it such a weightiness, a heaviness that groans with all creation, “How long, Lord, until you have redeemed these ashes and bones?” Rather, embedded in death along with all the pain and raw emotion is a deep holiness and sense of fragility. The juxtaposition of beauty and pain involved in the process of death is a haunting mystery of the ages.

Death, like life, is a great mystery.

From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.

***

The first time I realized, in its full weight, that my beloved grandpa, affectionately called “Pop,” was dying, I cried.

I was driving and thinking about a conversation family members had with hospice. They gave him a few months.

“He won’t make it to my wedding,” I thought to myself. How could I get married without him?

My first thought about his death was my own convenience and comfort. It takes events like these to realize the nature of our hearts. In this moment, I thought of myself instead of him, and that is why I cried.

Father, forgive me.

***

During a silent prayer at church a few weeks later, the thought entered my mind, so clear it was as if it wasn’t my own. It won’t be long. An image of people in heaven welcoming my grandpa home was enough to make me start sobbing. When church was over, I checked my phone and saw a text from my mom, “Come over. Pop is not doing well. It might be today.”

It wasn’t that day. We had 5 more precious days with him, and for that, I am grateful.

***

In life, Pop never commanded attention to himself or bragged. In his retirement years, he volunteered at my elementary school every week and at a local soup kitchen. He served in his local church for decades. Pop served quietly and with humility. He never talked about his days as a gunner pilot during World War II, even though history books told of the blood bath of Iwo Gima and the Pacific battles. Every so often he would bring up a comment about war, and I could see it by his eyes: He knew much pain.

I think of Pop at baseball games, concerts, and Sunday night dinners. He poured his time and love to his family. His sense of humor never failed even at the end. When his priest came to do last rites, Pop joked, “Oh so you’re here to do last rites with me, huh?” A twinkle was in his eye.

That last week, Pop would often shake his head, seemingly annoyed at the fuss and doting over associated with dying. The closest he came to complaining was telling my mom he felt “lousy” the few weeks before he died. He never talked about his pain, although he was in immense pain.

He was a fighter and humble servant, the family patriarch, the rock of his family… in life, as with death.

***

The night he lost consciousness, Pop told me in an almost inaudible whisper, “I’ll miss ya.” I didn’t know that was it, that he would never say another word to me.

Hospice told us the day before he was “transitioning.” He was not quite alive but not dead either.

Six hours before his final breath, Pop looked up for the first time that day and stared with his wide blue eyes not at my brother in the distance but past him. I will never forget his eyes full of wonder, awe, shock, and slight terror. He was seeing something incredible, of that I was sure. Perhaps loved ones, people, God?

“Run toward the light,” We told him. “They’re waiting for you.”

I expected that majestic moment of awe and wonder to be “it.” Isn’t that what happens when people die in movies?

That moment was dramatic, but it was not when he died. When Pop died, it was quiet. He didn’t sit up and say some poignant monologue and gaze off into the distance like part of me was expecting would happen. Instead, it was more like this: When I looked over, he was breathing. The next time I looked over, he was not.

***

Hospice told us hearing is the last thing to go. “Be careful what you say around him,” The hospice nurse told us pointedly. My extended family is notoriously loud, so much so that one time when Pop was in the hospital, our family got kicked out of the hospital lounge for being too loud.

Less than two hours before Pop died, his children’s families were dispersing. The prime area for concern was getting back to the house to give my grandpa dilaudid every two hours. “If he lingers too long, we might have to have him stay in a hospice facility,” one commented. Family members divided up shifts wearily and departed.

I worry that is the last thing Pop heard… his children and grandchildren talking about painkillers as if his dying was an inconvenience on our lives. It takes events like these to realize the nature of our hearts. In that moment, we thought of ourselves instead of him, and Pop probably heard us.

Father, forgive us.

***

The last thing I think Pop heard was my brother, the home health worker, and myself talking about Donald Trump and the state of American politics. I was mindlessly flipping through a People magazine laying out about Pippa Middleton’s wedding. My brother and I were waiting for our turn to give him pain medication. Everyone else had left. One second, I turned around, and we all leapt to our feet.

My grandma had been napping on the couch, exhausted after days of people coming in and out of her home. She saw the fading breath of her husband of 71 years, and despite dementia and fatigue, went right to his side and said with clarity:

Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil 
For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever
Amen

Then his shallow breath was gone.

***

The weight of the loss hit me while I was driving later. I looked to the sky to see the sun and clouds laced together in such a way it took my breath away. The Lord’s ways are mysterious, but he has not abandoned me, nor has he abandoned our world.

I don’t think of Pop the way he was in those last days. I don’t think about the narcotics or hospice. I think of pictures I saw of him when he was in his 40s long before I was born, with a huge grin on his face, laughing with friends or playing tennis. He is happy now. He has no pain. He is with God. I don’t doubt these things.

I had a seminary professor who once said, “It doesn’t matter how old someone is. When a person, dies it is always too soon.” His point is that humans are created to live eternally, and death is a sad echo of the fragile, broken world we inhabit.

Pop spent 93 years on earth, and while his life was full and long, his death was still painful and unexpected. We humans were not created to be in pain and die. We were created to live.

Whenever I think of Pop, I look to the sky, and more often than not, I see another striking image of clouds and sun that comforts me. I cannot theologically comprehend death, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do so. Death is not of God. God’s desire is shalom, the peace and reconciliation of all things to his realm. Wolterstorff writes, “The bells for the feast of divine joy are the bells for the shalom of the world.”

I find comfort that God is brokenhearted by his people’s tears, and God, too, suffers and groans along with his creation. God’s love extends even here, into this broken world, but it does not end there. Death ends this life, but life does not end with death. We were made to live, and live we shall.

***

I looked into the sky the other day at another beautiful display of God’s glory and thought about Pop. I miss him, even though I know we will meet again. I grieve and remind myself that Pop is happy and painless, reunited with his creator, although none of that numbs the ache for shalom and wholeness. It is in these moments I remember, God’s ways are mysterious, and they are not mine.

Life is fragile and sacred. It hangs on by a string, and then, just like that, it dissipates.

Death, like life, is a mystery.

Pop, it was a pleasure doing life with you. Until we meet again.