A friend has posted about his father being in the hospital, which has gotten a lot of responses about prayers for him to get well. This, of course, is the ordinary response when someone is sick, or in ill health. We all want them to get better, no doubt. And, while I certainly understand healing prayer, I know for a fact that healing comes in death, too.
Having lost so many in my life I understand that not everyone will get well (or our understanding of wellness). Not everyone will even get better. We have to learn that “our will” will never trump God’s will. We can’t pray someone to health if God has chosen him or her to return to His energy, His home. It’s not bad to accept that, nor is it wishing someone to die; it’s merely acceptance of the process of life. We can’t keep running from the reality of death. It is always unexpected, even when we know it’s coming.
I know of two people who were just vying to be subjects of a study in how we deal with death. One lady, in her 40s, had an aunt who was 102 when she died. Her aunt had been in declining health and the doctors tried to prepare her for her aunt’s death, and when the aunt died that woman pitched a fit. She screamed at the doctors, she stopped going to work and closed herself off from anyone seeking to console her. I was perplexed. She lived with her aunt and had about 20 (or more) years with her, what was she screaming about, I wondered? What was so unsettled that she had to do all that? She was the only heir to whatever the aunt had.
Another woman, single, rescued old dogs that people were going to put to sleep. Every single day she rushed home from work to COOK dinners for those six dogs. I mean HUGE pots of carrots, potatoes, beef, and other vegetables. Every. Single. Day. She took no vacations away from her dogs. She spent a fortune on vets for them if they had cancer, or any debilitating health issues, and bought special things (like stairs) if they were too infirm to climb onto the couch or bed. She allowed them to sleep or sit anywhere they wanted (and her furniture looked nasty). And when one of them finally died, she went berserk, inconsolable. She, too, stopped work and wouldn’t even take calls for anyone wanted to talk her down from her doggy death cliff. Even though I knew she considered them her children, I didn’t understand her depth of grief. I accepted it, but didn’t understand it.
I was in my 20s when I worked at the University of California San Diego, and at that time we had a chancellor whose wife was sociable and sweet. She knew everyone in the office and occasionally asked us to his or her house for lunch or dinner. The chancellor’s wife had a mother, I’ll call her Maggie here, who was equally lively and had been a teacher (if I remember correctly) and great in sports, too, she was a social philanthropist and in the society pages. Then Maggie got sick, got better, got sick, got better, and got even sicker and bed-bound before she died. That was a blow to all of us who had chatted with her over the years and I remember sending the chancellor’s wife a short note about how my heart ached for the loss of her mother. What she sent me back floored me.
The chancellor’s wife sent me a note that was so upbeat and inspiring about how she was not sad that her mother had died because of all the time they had together in life. She thanked God that she didn’t have to work so that in her mother’s last days she got to spend them all with her. And, what stuck me most was that she said her mother had been in such pain during those last months and now she was free from pain, and she knew that her mother deserved that; she said she was happy that her mother was free from pain. And all that was written in flowing script, on bright flowery, spring paper.
It was my very first time understanding that death could be received and accepted. It was without crying, falling on caskets, screaming “why me, Lord,” or being carried down the aisles by ushers because the pain was so heavy, as I’d seen many times in my community before that time. Here was someone who talked about her mother being free from pain. That–I understood. I read and re-read the note many times because it was so impactful. In hindsight, I realize that it has helped me grow.
Death of a loved one is painful. We can’t get around that. It hurts no matter how much you try to rationalize the reality. I hear people say (and have myself said), “his/her death was so unexpected.” I can tell you from experience that even when you sit by the bedside of someone dying, when it, death, finally happens, it’s unexpected. You can’t prepare for it no matter how hard you try.
When my mother died seven years ago, I cried, but I remembered that she was no longer in pain or in a nursing home, which she hated. I knew without a doubt that she left here for a better place than the comatose state she had been in, limbs frozen at awkward angles from being unused, surrounded by a rotating staff of care-taking strangers, for a few years prior to that. She couldn’t hear, she couldn’t see, could only eat some bland, tasteless, colorless concoction created by the nursing staff by which they gave her medicines, until they got lazier still and just gave it to her in a feeding tube. Added to that, almost all of her eight children lived many miles away, so she got visits only when we were in town. Even though she was 93, she died, I’m convinced, to get away from there.
When my sister died three years ago, my niece (my sister lived with her son, my nephew, and his wife, Pat) was told by my sister’s doctors that the end was near so she alerted my siblings and we drove/flew in to be with her. We laughed, talked, shared many memories with my sister, took pictures, and watched my sister eat better than she had in many months, before she briefly rallied in health; briefly. A couple of weeks later, her gentle heart just gave out and quit beating. She was a believer in God, so we had a service for her (even though it wasn’t a Catholic service). Pat was my hero for giving us that last meal and a chance to share memories as a family with my sister.
When Daddy died last year, it was more of a celebration because he was 105 years old and his body, legs, eyes, lungs, just plain wore out. We never told him that his oldest child was already gone before him. There was just no need. He was a man with high morals about right and wrong, but not a religious man, so there was no funeral, just plans for a memorial in the future. I prayed that God accept him “as is,” because I knew that him being born at the beginning of the last century (1907), he had suffered so much from the treatment of white people. I knew that all our images are of a white Jesus that he long ago stopped believing in, or hope that the white man would do right by him.
Then my brother died last month. It knocked the wind out of me. I couldn’t even comprehend what my sister-in-law was calling to tell me. I kept saying, who? who? There was no preparation for this. He was my youngest sibling, and although he had some periodic health issues (some pretty severe), there was no implication that death was near. It literally took me two days before I truly understood enough for it to buckle my knees. He was a spiritual man, but didn’t belong to any specific religion, so we will memorialize him when we memorialize Daddy.
When my husband’s father died a few days after my brother last month, he simply stopped breathing. His Alzheimer’s made him afraid of what was coming, but when he was clear headed, he was strong in his Catholic faith. The day before he died we visited him and he was nervous, looked somewhat disheveled, and shaky. He kept saying he was scared, and praying, “God help me, God help me, I’m scared,” in a chant. He asked his daughter to take him for a ride, and after getting into the car he died in the driveway. His daughter was almost inconsolable and screamed at the hospital staff to not touch him when they tried to revive him and failed. She blamed herself for not driving fast enough to get him to the hospital.
What these all made me understand clearly is that it doesn’t matter whether we are religious or not, spiritual or not, we all die when it’s our time; it’s inevitable. And when you lose someone you love, it hurts and there’s no getting around that. Prayers for health or healing sometimes, I believe, only prolong their pain, even though I still believe in its value.
What I’ve learned to do is to pray that I can accept God’s will for that person to recover or be taken away from their pain or suffering. I pray for the strength of their family. I pray for their strength in dying a good death, and for the family’s strength in getting through that awful period of mourning. And, too, I pray for God’s grace to accept them back into His energy, as well as for the words I can use that will give comfort to the living. In the future I’m going to take an example from Iyanla Vanzant and light a candle for them as I pray. And for me, well, I pray I have a good death where I slip away quietly, peacefully, when no one is noticing.