Tag Archives: death

God-Easter-hope

From death to life

Holy Week and the Easter Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday) have long been my favorite time of the liturgical year.God-Easter-hopeI love hearing the Passion twice in one week and watching the pageantry of Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday. The rich symbolism of the Easter Vigil touches my heart and invites me to renewal in a unique way. The baptisms and confirmations of people choosing my faith as their own always strengthens my faith and makes me more hopeful.

Since 2002, Holy Week has the added significance of being the week my dad died. It was Monday of Holy Week (March 25 that year), and every Holy Week Monday is now a memorial day for me.

On the Saturday before Palm Sunday in 2002, the hospice nurse called and said, “Your dad is ready to die, but your mother won’t let go. You have to come home.”  I explained that I was coming home for Easter and already had my ticket for Thursday. “No, you have to come now,” she insisted. So I changed my ticket and came home the next day, Palm Sunday.

Contemplating Jesus’ Passion and death that year, while my dad was also dying, brought new, deeper meaning to the mystery of death and resurrection.

Once my mother let go of my dad, once she truly said good-bye to him, he died within an hour. The nurse was right; he was ready.God-Easter-hopeThen five years, ago, my friend Jim died on Tuesday of Holy Week (April 3 that year), adding another memorial to an already meaningful time.

On Palm Sunday 2012, almost nine months after his diagnosis of brain cancer, we knew Jim was close to death. He ate his last meal that Sunday afternoon, spent the next day in bed, and died early Tuesday morning.

Their deaths, occurring during this holiest time of the year, has deepened my understanding of the Paschal mystery—how death is part of life and how new life can come from death.

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains but a single grain; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. (John 12:24)God-Easter-hopeI ask myself what fruit has been produced by their deaths—and the deaths of others I have loved.

One fruit is my deep awareness of how fortunate I am to have loved and been loved. I know myself as blessed, even in the absence of those I love.

St. John Chrysostom said, “Those whom we love and lose are no longer where they once were. They are now whenever we are.”

It is true that my dad, Jim and all the other people I have lost are no longer present in physical form, but I carry them in my heart, and they are with me in a different way. I think of them often, and their lives and deaths help me to live each day in awareness of the fragility of life and in gratitude for all that is.
God-Easter-hope

 

god-blessings-transformation

You are worth more than gold

Last weekend, I returned to Philadelphia for a friend’s thirtieth birthday celebration. Last weekend also marked the fifth anniversary of my friend Jim’s death, and I commemorated that occasion with Mass and dinner with friends.

I had lived in Philadelphia for twenty-eight years and have friends there who have known me for most of my adult life.

One friend asked me if I had come to see any upside to the time of Jim’s illness and death. I reminded her that I believe every curse has a blessing, and I recounted some of the blessings from that difficult time.god-blessings-transformationJim used to tell me to “take it in” whenever someone paid me a compliment.

Low self-esteem had plagued me from an early age, and I didn’t really believed the positive things people said to me. Each time Jim told me to take it in I knew I was minimizing or dismissing a compliment—a habit so deeply ingrained that I was unaware I was doing it. He never seemed to tire of reminding me that people appreciated me, even though I was blind to my own gifts and talents.god-blessings-transformationBut in the process of caring for Jim, a switch got tripped, and I started to be able to take it in. I began to believe the compliments.

While Jim was received radiation, we met weekly with his radiologist and I would report on Jim’s reaction to the treatment. During one of these meetings, the radiologist said to me, “You are an accurate report.” “I am,” I thought.

I had realized during Jim’s illness that I can deal with most anything as long as I know what is happening. My reports were accurate, and I was able to take in the radiologist’s affirmation.

“You are doing the best you can for Jim,” the radiology receptionist said to me one day when I was particularly emotional and weepy. I took in her affirmation, too. I was doing the best I could, and Jim not only lived months beyond original expectations, but his life was good.god-blessings-transformationAbout six months into Jim’s illness, his neurosurgeon said, “If I was just looking at your scans, I would be deeply concerned. But talking to you and looking at you, you seem to be doing quite well.” “Thank you,” I said, and I meant it. I had come to realize that Jim was doing well at least in part because of the care I was giving him.

These little experiences began to add up, and I started to see myself differently. My self-esteem was being bolstered during this very difficult time. I was actually functioning fairly well, and I was doing the best I could for Jim.

While Jim’s brain cells were being destroyed by cancer, my negative self-image was also being destroyed and my brain cells were being reorganized into a more accurate report.

“You are gold,” Jim said to me one day. “Thank you,” I replied, as I took in his compliment and believed him.god-blessings-transformation

vulnerability-faith-spirituality

Walking the path of vulnerability

“I feel like I am in a free fall,” a friend recently commented when we were talking about upcoming life changes. “Have you ever felt that way?” she asked.

“More than once,” I said.

One time was the day I met with Jim’s neurosurgeon and he told me the grim facts about Jim’s cancer—that it was non-curable and very, very aggressive. When he said that, “even with surgery and treatment, Jim will probably not live very long,” my stomach knotted and I felt dizzy, as if I was in a free fall.vulnerability-faith-spiritualityJim had been my anchor; he helped keep me stable. He supported me in prayer and work. His was the voice of reason when I was going off on some rant. He was my best friend. And here was a doctor telling me Jim would soon be gone.

This may sound selfish—given that Jim was going to lose his life—but, in a way, so was I. Who would keep me grounded? Who would tell me to “take it in” when someone complimented me? Who would remind me that the best is yet to come? Who would do and be all the things Jim had been and done for me?

What had been was no longer, and what would be had not yet been revealed. I felt untethered, without direction, as if I had stepped off a cliff and was in a free fall. I felt so very, very vulnerable.

My inclination is to run away from vulnerability, to try to ignore it or deny it or minimize it, because I am so uncomfortable feeling vulnerable. And that is what I wanted to do on that day.

Jim’s illness was not my first experience of that kind of radical vulnerability, but it was an opportunity to remember what I had learned from those other times—that God was with me through it all.

Shifting my focus toward God lessened my panic. Within a day or two of Jim’s diagnosis, I had every confidence that Jim was in God’s hands—and so was I. The vulnerability did not go away, but I was able to lean into God and trust that God was keeping me safe.vulnerability-faith-spiritualityVulnerability reminds me that God is really in control and that any illusions I have of control are just that—illusions. Accepting this basic truth can be freeing, even though vulnerability may feel more like terror or panic.

I want to believe that what is today will still be tomorrow. But, in truth, there is no certainty, and those of us who have experienced great loss know this truth. In the end, vulnerability is where God meets me and reminds me that even though I feel like I am in a free fall, God is there to catch me.

I have learned from my losses that sitting with my vulnerability and accepting it—even embracing it—creates a path to trusting God. And that is the path I want to follow.vulnerability-faith-spirituality

 

gratitude-thanksgiving

Gratitude

Recently, I facilitated a day of reflection for members of the cancer support center where I work. The theme was gratitude.

It may seem paradoxical to invite people to be grateful when they have cancer, because being grateful during difficult times can seem unimaginable; but I think that difficult times are when we need gratitude the most.

I shared this quote from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross:

Yes, my primary mission has been to bring death out of the closet because everyone needs to view death as an opportunity. Death can show us the way to live. It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth—and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up—that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.

Death is a natural part of life, most easily seen in nature at this time of year, but a diagnosis of cancer or some other serious illness can also shine a light on our mortality.

gratitude-thanksgiving

When I was the director of a lay mission program, I spent Thanksgiving one year at St. Philip’s Mission in Swaziland, Southern Africa. The Mission is on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, as rural as can be. The AIDS epidemic was raging throughout the country, and the Mission’s orphanage reached capacity soon after opening.

One of our missioners told the story of visiting the hut of a dying woman. Her three young children were at her side and the eldest, a girl of six, used a syringe to give her mother sips of water.gratitude-thanksgiving

Soon after that visit, the woman died and her three children moved to the orphanage.

During that Thanksgiving visit, we gave each child a book.They reacted with surprise and delight. “For me?” they asked as they lovingly cradled their gifts. It was as if they had been handed a precious diamond.

Their joy and gratitude brought tears to my eyes as I thought about my reaction to gifts I had received. Was I ever this grateful? Did I ever allow myself to be so humble that I could delight in something so small?

It occurred to me that their deep awareness of death led them to a deep sense of gratitude. Knowing their mortality helped them live fully.

It is a dance, this movement from death to life, from sadness to joy.

Since I moved to Michigan a few years ago, I had many moments of sadness and deep grief. And then, I will spend a day with my family or have a random encounter with a cousin or reconnect with a place in Detroit that was significant in my childhood—and I am filled with joy and gratitude that I made the move.

Taking a day away helps me to see how blessed I am, to be grateful and to trust that the best is yet to come.

 

 

Deep waters

“I don’t have any place to put that,” I said to my friend Steve when he told me he had decided not to take treatment for bladder cancer. Even with treatment, he was only expected to live a few months; without it, he would die very soon.

This was just eight months after my friend Jim died. Steve had been meeting with me during those months, walking with me through my grief. And now he was telling me that he was going to die. Sadness overwhelmed me. I had no place for this news.

Steve died a week later. I was numb, walking around in a fog so dense I feared I would not find my way out.

fog

 

In the three years since Steve died, two more close friends have died from cancer.

I don’t have any place inside me to put more loss, more sadness. Cumulative grief threatens to cripple me.

“Put out into the deep water…” Jesus says (Luke 5:4). Deep water? If the water of my grief gets any deeper, I fear I will drown. I am already in over my head.

I remember a friend recounting the losses of a woman she knew—first her husband and then one by one, each of her children died from some hereditary condition. “I don’t know how she goes on,” my friend had said. At the time, I could not imagine it either. How did this woman keep getting out of bed every day after losing her husband and children within a few years? How could she keep putting one foot in front of the other?

Now I wonder if my friend recounts my losses with same sense of incredulity. Is she telling others of my litany of losses and saying of me, “I don’t know how she goes on”?

I re-read chapter 5 of Luke’s gospel and noticed that Jesus got into the boat and taught the people on the shore before instructing the fishermen to “put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Jesus was in the boat. That detail had escaped my attention before, and I re-imagined the scene—not the fisherman alone putting out into the deep water, but Jesus was with them.

I am not alone in my grief; Jesus is with me

Put out into the deep water and lower your nets for a catch.

What am I to catch? I ask Jesus.

Perhaps the catch of living in this deep place of loss and sadness and grief for the past six years is a greater capacity for understanding others’ grief, a profound empathy. Perhaps the catch is that each death, each loss, is deepening the space within me to accept my lack of control and my own vulnerability.

Perhaps the catch is that my capacity to live in gratitude for what has been and in hope for what is to come is getting deeper, that grief has shaped a space deep enough to hold it all.

hope-stone

 

Five simple rules to be happy

My friend Jim kept a small slip of paper taped to the shelf above his desk, with six typed lines:

Remember the five simple rules to be happy.

  1. Free your heart from hatred.
  2. Free your mind from worries.
  3. Live simply.
  4. Give more.
  5. Expect less.

I don’t know if he consciously read these rules every day, but that would probably be a good way to start the day.

I, though, would add a sixth rule: be grateful.

Gratitude is the path to contentment for me, and contentment is the foundation for happiness. When I focus on what I have and am grateful for it—no matter how meager it might be—my expectations are automatically lowered and I can see that I actually have quite a lot. When I pay more attention to what is rather than what isn’t, I see how abundantly God has blessed me.

Living in gratitude has been my prayer for as long as I can remember.

Before receiving communion at Mass, I pray, Lord, help me to be grateful. Being able to freely practice my faith and to receive nourishment from my church and the sacraments is a starting point for a litany of gratitude for all I have—and prayers for those who have less.

Many different factors have helped move me along the path to living in gratitude, especially the opportunities I have had to travel to communities where people have fewer material goods than I have.

One memory that stands out for me is from a trip to Swaziland, Southern Africa, when I was the director of a lay mission program. St. Phillip’s Mission has a medical clinic and on one of my visits, I was standing near the clinic when a man came walking out of the surrounding bush.

Swaziland bush

On his back, he was carrying his brother, a grown man so weak he could not walk. I had only once before seen someone so emaciated, and seeing these two men emerge from the bush brought back memories of my Uncle Steve just before he died from stomach cancer many years earlier.

I don’t know how far this man had walked through the bush with his brother on his back, but the nearest homestead was probably a mile away. His search for medicine for his dying brother painted a compelling picture. His love and dedication were obvious and poignant. In what seemed a hopeless situation, this man still held hope that someone could help his brother. Tears filled my eyes, and I prayed for these two men, even as I could see that the brother was near death.

Fortunately, the clinic was able to help the brother, and on my return visit a year later, I saw this man who had been emaciated almost to the point of death, now standing strong and healthy—and joyously grateful for the help he had received at the clinic.

How can I not thank God for this miracle and all my blessings!

st. philips.JPG

One particular day

I suppose most people can remember one particular day when something happened that caused a major life change. That day for me was five years ago today—July 8, 2011. My friend Jim had a seizure while sitting at his desk, hit his head when he fell, and was unconscious when found several hours later. A CT scan at the hospital, checking for a concussion, instead found cancer in three lobes of his brain; and not just any cancer, but a very, very aggressive, non-curable cancer. I knew nothing would ever be the same.

Jim had always believed that our life experiences brought lessons—and really difficult experiences brought really important lessons. During his cancer journey, he continually asked God, “What is the invitation in this?” and “What am I meant to learn from this?” His lessons ranged from letting go of important parts of his identify to allowing himself to be physically cared for to deepening his belief that he was in God’s hands. Jim became much more trusting while he was sick (although I think he maintained a certain level of skepticism when it was time for the daily injections I had to give him).

Every day we laughed and every day we were grateful. Even on bad days, when everything that could go wrong did—like the day Jim needed emergency surgery just three days after being released from the hospital or when he developed a blood clot the day before we were going to the ocean—even on those days, we found humor and gratitude.

In the face of a non-curable, aggressive cancer, it was actually fairly easy for me to admit I had no control. If a neurosurgeon, radiologist and oncologist could not get rid of the brain cancer, what could I do? Instead, I asked God, “What is the invitation in this for me?”

And God responded, “This is what you are to do: you are to love Jim unconditionally, forgive him without limit, and let him go.” They were words from a prayer I had prayed every day for ten years, and God was pointing out to me that this was my chance to practice what I had been praying —every day for almost nine months. I wanted to be more loving and forgiving and less controlling and here was a great opportunity.

While he was sick, we talked about my moving back to Michigan to be near my family, and when my sisters came to visit, he gave me to them. Two days later, he died a very peaceful death, at home with his dog by his side.

On that day of Jim’s diagnosis five years ago, I could not know the difficulties, heartbreak and sorrow that was to come. Nor could I know the gifts, joys and blessings.

When I look back at July 8, 2011, and everything that has happened since, I am both amazed and deeply grateful. Life has changed, and it is good.