Saturday, December 3, 2011

Preparing For Death?

The dogs decided in the middle of the night that going outside was a necessity. That woke me up to the point that I could not go straight back to sleep. So I have been sitting here at the computer, trying to clean up some email and beat that little alien at Stellar Sweeper, all while listening to an overweight (but totally cute) Chihuahua snore.

Although I did not plan to start this early, I wanted to write something today, just for the sake of writing. I have been banging on keys since I was a tiny tot messing around with my father's manual typewriter; yet, just moving my fingers around and watching words appear in front of me is still fascinating. (I just don't go through reams of typing paper anymore.) I was tossing around thoughts in my head of writing something lighthearted about our Christmas decorations, but in my email was a more serious idea that grabbed hold of me and would not let go.

A few weeks ago, I subscribed to receive daily meditations from the Henri Nouwen Society. The first meditations I received talked about the resurrection and our bodies after the second coming of Christ. Then the subject matter turned to waiting, which makes sense as we are in the Advent season. However, today's meditation completely caught me off guard. This is what it said:
Death, a New Birth
There comes a time in all our lives when we must prepare for death. When we become old, get seriously ill, or are in great danger, we can't be preoccupied simply with the question of how to get better unless "getting better" means moving on to a life beyond our death. In our culture, which in so many ways is death oriented, we find little if any creative support for preparing ourselves for a good death. Most people presume that our only desire is to live longer on this earth. Still, dying, like giving birth, is a way to new life, and as Ecclesiastes says: "There is a season for everything: ... a time for giving birth, a time for dying" (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2).
We have to prepare ourselves for our death with the same care and attention as our parents prepared themselves for our births.
Death is really not something I wanted to think about at the moment. My mind has already been playing tricks on me, imagining other Christmases with more joy in them, so that I don't have to think about now and how Mama is not here to celebrate with me this year. Nevertheless, God and the Henri Nouwen Society thought that now would be a good time to consider the process of dying.

As a social worker, I have had the opportunity to spend time with many people who were chronically or terminally ill. Even so, I had rarely spent more than a few moments with anyone who was actively in the process of dying. Until Mama. 

Looking back, I think that Mama tried to prepare us in little ways for her death. I do not know if she was conscious of how close the time was, but I would not be surprised to find out that she knew the end was near. She was sensitive to things that often escaped me. I knew, though, when the active process of dying started for her. The rest of my family thought she would recover, but I knew the moment I realized that she was in the middle of a stroke and rushed her to the hospital that the end was on its way. 

Was Mama prepared for what Nouwen calls a "good death"? I think she was. She had no control over the physical process that God had chosen for her passing, but she was spiritually ready to meet the Lord. Even in the last week, when she was in so much pain, when our dear friend Amy would read the Bible to Mama, the pain seemed to fade. You could tell by Mama's facial expressions and body movements that she was paying attention to the Word. I think Mama was tired and ready to lay down this old life so that she could enter a new phase in her relationship with Jesus. I can only hope to be as graceful when my time comes.

Unfortunately, there is another recent passing that comes to my mind when I read Nouwen's advice to prepare for death. My sweet friend Melanie lost her mother a few weeks ago. Melanie's mother had been fighting cancer for years and it finally overtook her. Melanie had to fly to Illinois to be there for the end, and we got sporadic reports on the process. In one of our phone calls, Melanie told me that her mother was scared of dying and was fighting it every step of the way. The thought of death was causing her great anguish. I asked Melanie if her mother had any connection to God at all and the answer was no. 

I truly believe that all things are possible with God. I believe that He wanted Melanie's mother to turn to Him just as He wants all of His children to call on Him in their need. I prayed for Him to make Himself present and obvious to this distraught, fearful woman in her last moments. I have every faith that He did. I will not know the result this side of Heaven. It is possible that she accepted Him at the end, but I don't think she had  a graceful, "good" death the way my Mama did. 

It has been nine months since my Mama died, and there are still moments when I am completely surprised that she is gone. I suppose that is just part of the process for me. I expect that my dear friend Melanie will have moments like that in the next few months. I would gladly take on more of them so that she could have less, but I know it does not work that way. I am saddened that Melanie's last memories of her mother will include the fight and the fear of death, so unlike my last memories of Mama. I am grieved that I had these fresh examples to look at when reading Henri Nouwen's thoughts on death. I long to go back to a time when I did not know so much about these types of partings, but I know it does not work that way. I suppose this is just my season for these things.

Have you ever really thought about preparing for a "good death"? I would really like to know your views on this.


  1. You are still early in the grief journey, if you're only nine months in. I understand that now (21 months in, since my mom died). I agree that our culture doesn't teach us how to prepare for a good death, but it is my greatest wish.

    I see you in the comment sections of many of my friends. Finally popped over!

  2. Oh, friend! Thank you for this--and for Henri's meditation. We used that Ecclesiastes passage at my mom's service Friday, and I have been thinking much these weeks about preparing for my own death and preparing my family to be able to live on. Love that meditation. xoxo

  3. @Megan, I keep meaning to come "visit" you, but I get so scattered that I cannot concentrate on what is right in front of me. I'm looking forward to that changing (soon, I hope). I'm very honored that you came by. Thank you so much.

    @Sandra, I thought of you when I wrote this. I suspected that your Mother had a "good death". It really is a gift that we can give ourselves and those who get left behind to die a good death. After seeing what has happened to my friend and her family, I am determined to be as graceful as I can in my exit from this life.

  4. Carolyn, I'm reminded of your earlier link to a post by Marshall Davis ( It's worth repeating:
    "I know the Bible calls [death] 'the last enemy,' but it also says that it will be destroyed. I feel that the victory is already won. Death is defanged. It has no bite." Yes Lord, a gracious and a VICTORIOUS exit!

  5. @Dave, so sad that people don't understand that.


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