Death - I Told You I Wasn't Feeling Well
Pastors spend a lot of time in graveyards. No, we’re not ghouls, it’s just part of our ministry. For those we know well, we offer specific words of comfort and hope during memorial services and graveside services. For those who have not opened the doors to a church in a long time, it becomes more complicated. My desire was always to be authentic and accurate to the situation, but without a relationship with the family, it could be challenging to figure out if my words about the deceased were true to their family’s experience. It was also difficult to know whether or not the family was telling me their true feelings about their loved one or just what they thought a pastor would want to hear. It was hard, and sometimes I got it wrong. My intuition could be clouded by my relationship with the person who had died, which was sometimes a very different relationship than the family had.
One of my great funeral mistakes—one that happened despite my knowing the family—even made it into a book. Gail Caldwell’s beautifully written “A Strong West Wind” is a book about growing up in West Texas in the 1960’s. After her father died and her mother was too frail, Gail and her sister and I sat down in my office to plan the service. I began by asking them to randomly share words that described their father. “Safe” was one of the first images shared. I used it in the service. Apparently, it was not a correct statement; Gail’s father had been a bit volatile, particularly in their teenage years. Despite her otherwise complimentary words about my ministry, Gail wrote in her book about the sideways glance she shared with her sister during the service as I said her father was “safe.” Only they could answer why that word came out in our planning, but she made it clear that I had missed the mark on that one. When I read this, I smiled and learned. And after reading it, I was always sure to make space with families, known and unknown, for unreconciled feelings. Gail taught me how to listen to the in-between places.
Saying goodbye to a loved one comes with a variety of emotions. The experience is different for everyone. Sometimes the death is abrupt and unexpected. Sometimes the journey has been a slow decline with opportunities for thoughts to be shared…or spoken to the loved one who does not remember. And other times the decline is rapid, surprising the family.
Frank walked into my office one day and expressed his frustration. He’d been to a few doctors but felt like he knew in his gut that something more was going on with his body. He was feeling confused, exasperated, and depressed. He finally was told that he needed a surgery to strengthen his left foot that kept dropping and making him trip. The PT after the surgery made slow to little progress. We spent a number of times sitting in my office talking about his feeling. Like me, he was naturally a happy person and usually was able to work through challenges. But this obstacle was a struggle, making him feel out of control of his body in a way that seemed different than just aging. Then one morning, he walked into my office with a big smile and said, “I have ALS.” At the time it was a relief. He wasn’t crazy, and the joyfulness of his personality returned and stayed, even after the reality of the diagnosis sank in. That smile at announcing his diagnosis came from the relief of finally being heard. He knew his body. He knew something was wrong.
Frank’s decline was fast. He came to the church with a cane, then a walker, then in a wheelchair, and finally he became homebound. I enjoyed a number of visits with him throughout the process. Towards the end, I started my own journey, but I kept it quiet. I didn’t want to add that burden to his life. I didn’t need a cane yet, so no-one outside the family and a small circle of friends knew about my situation. I learned much from Frank.
I received a phone call from his awe-inspiring wife, Betty, saying that Frank would like me to stop by and plan his funeral. By this time, I needed Betty’s help to understand some of his words. Sometimes we both had to lean in and guess before we would get a look of affirmation. As we got down to business and started planning his service, he said something to me and I gave him a squint and a tilted head. He took a deep breath from the supplemental oxygen and spoke again. I understood him clearly.
“No John 14. You use it too much at memorial services.”
I said, “Of course I do! It’s a brilliant passage - especially for people at a memorial service.”
“No” was his clear answer.
Knowing him well, my response to him was, “What do want me to read, 2 Kings 2:23-25?”
He asked what it said, so I got out my Bible and read it to him. (At this point you should know that Frank was hair-challenged completely.) I read:
“He [Elisha] went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going
up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered
him, saying, ‘ Go away Baldhead! Go away, Baldhead!’ When he turned
around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord.
Then, two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two
of the boys. From there he went to mount Carmel, and then returned
I thought I killed Frank. His breathing became very erratic. Then, Betty and I realized he was laughing hysterically as best as he could. We joined in with his laughter. It was quite a memorable moment.
I was sad that I was out of town shortly after that when Frank died, but I give thanks for his friendship and our journey, learning together how to live well with a failing body; mine as a quiet recipient in that journey.
I have not found a lot of well-known publications about what to say to a person living with a failing body. As Americans we’re taught that all things are available and possible for us (not paying close enough attention to the disenfranchised who have been taught the opposite by history and experience). As Christians we celebrate the amazing power of God and enjoy singing that, “All things are possible with God,” not thinking about how that might sound to our friends who are living with failing bodies. “God will heal you.” “You can fight this.” “Are you praying specifically for God to heal your body now?” “You look great!” These are just a few of the comments I have heard, and, if I didn’t have a decent filter, I may have responded to them with more blunt or churlish answers when I heard them. But I understand. I know I’ve made the mistakes myself many times.
So, what do you do for a person with a failing body? Listen and ask questions. You don’t have to fix it. You couldn’t even if you tried. And you don’t have to think positive. Just listen and ask questions, specific questions. If you’re a “doing” type of person, you could ask, “I’m heading to the store. Are there some kinds of food you find enjoyable?” Or, maybe just stop by with a basket of Ensure and some flowers or a plant. Don’t feel bad if a visit is not desired. It’s not about you. It may be about exhaustion or the need for quiet.
I will share with you that I think about death all the time. The progression was moving so quickly at a couple of points; I thought I would be gone by now. The pain during the day is dulled by meds but the nights are filled with early awakenings to burning legs, back, and arms. I adjust the bed, but there is no simple solution. (Thanks to Barrett, I can talk to the system in our house and the light, named George, turns on and I can do some early devotions reading.) Even though I plan to be cremated and tossed in the ocean off Cape Cod, I do have perverse thoughts of having a tombstone put up in a cemetery with my name, dates, and an epitaph saying, “I told you I wasn’t feeling well.” I would love to have people wander through a cemetery and come across the tombstone. Hopefully it would bring a smile to those grieving, and a burst of laughter to those that are just snooping around.
I just ordered a book recently published by Kate Bowler, No Cure For Being Human. Kate has been living with stage IV cancer for the past six years. I read a review of the book by Kirsten Powers, who writes, “a remarkable and soul-baring new book filled with the wisdom she has gained on this harrowing journey…she reflects on the epidemic of denial that results in so many of us refusing to come to terms with finitude—ours and those around us.” It’s a hard truth, but when we confront it, we can deal with it ourselves and help others by listening more than sharing “positive-thinking” clichés. Frank’s death was not pretty or fun—but there was beauty and joy. Things were shared that needed to be shared and he was surrounded by much love. He didn’t feel heard at the beginning of his journey, but he did at the end. So listen, listen, listen. It is the greatest gift you can share with someone experiencing a failing body. By seeking the ways to be most helpful, and (for those with the failing bodies) learning to be truthful and vulnerable, we can live more truthfully and authentically.