Tag Archives: death

God-cancer-hope

Why words matter

The last thing you say to someone might be the last thing you say to him. These words came to me as a memory from the day my friend Jim had a seizure which left him unconscious. That day ended with a diagnosis of a very, very aggressive, non-curable brain cancer.

In the midst of being told that Jim may never regain consciousness, I wondered, “What was the last thing I said to him?”

Fortunately, I had spoken to him shortly before the seizure and my words were positive.

I know, though, that I don’t end every conversation, every interaction on a positive note. Sometimes I speak out of frustration or anger. Other times, I am distracted or tired or…God-cancer-hopeThat question, though, from the day Jim had a seizure has stayed with me and is a reminder to try to end every conversation on a positive note. That is particularly significant because I work at a cancer support center.

One of the women who came to the center for a couple of years had not been around for a while. Phone calls and messages went unanswered. We knew she had stopped treatment and began to wonder if she was still alive.

Sometimes families don’t notify us for weeks or even months, so we often live in a kind of limbo. But, we learned of this woman’s death within a few days after she had died.

Remembering this particular woman, I wondered what had been my last words to her. I hope they were something that let her know that I was glad to see her and that I cared about her. I hope she felt accepted, consoled and even uplifted.

She had been very realistic about the path she had chosen. She knew that without treatment, the cancer would end her life. But, I don’t think she knew that the last time she came to our center would be the last time. I did not know that the last words I said to her were the last words I would ever say to her.

Some days, I am overwhelmed by the sadness of my work. People learning they have cancer, enduring treatment, anxious for results from scans, some of them dying—it can be so sad.

Other days, though, I am overjoyed by the good news of my work. People learning that the cancer is in remission or that they are cancer-free, optimistic that life holds promise, hopeful for a future they once feared would never come.

Balancing these emotions, this ups and downs of cancer and its many ripple effects, can be difficult for me. God invites me to hold both the joys and sorrows.

I am reminded of St. Paul’s words: I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation….I can do all things through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:12-13)

Strengthen me, Lord.

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resiliency-faith-cancer

Fashioned by family

Last weekend, I drove my 91-year old mother to northern Michigan to visit her younger sister. I hadn’t been up north for two years, and my aunt wasn’t doing very well then. Now, though, she is doing remarkably well; it is amazing what a few medication tweaks and some lifestyle changes can do.

They caught up on news of family and friends, and we played cards in the evening. My cousin visited and brought pumpkins from his garden and apples from his tree.

Conversations with my mother and aunt gave me family details. I learned which uncle was my grandmother’s favorite and which uncle was lazy. I learned that my Aunt Betty’s real name was Scholastica and that we were never close to my grandmother’s side of the family, but they did not know why.

My mother and I visited the cemetery after Sunday Mass, but it was drizzling and windy so she stayed in the car while I collected the flower-covered crosses my cousin had put at our relatives’ graves last spring. Most of my relatives are buried there, including my grandparents and my dad. It is the place my mother wants to be buried.

These days went the way so many others have during past visits up north.

While we were there, I kept thinking about how much of our lives are shaped by our families—and where God’s grace enters the picture to enable us to become more than our pasts. Like most women, I have watched myself become my mother and sometimes I rejoice in that, and other times I rebel.

My mother is one of those tenacious, feisty, determined elders. She does her own grocery shopping, tends her garden and cooks; she is strong and fiercely independent (and, yes, she still drives).

She taught me to be resilient and persistent.

A friend in college said to me, “I wish my mother had taught me to be as persistent as your mother taught you,” when I refused to quit looking for something she had lost.

Never give up could be my mother’s motto.resiliency-faith-cancerMy father used to tell us, “If you come home and think I am dead, go out for another hour to make sure.” He never wanted to go to a hospital, and when he had a major stroke, my mother had the inner strength not to call 911. She gave him the kind of death he wanted—at home with family.

My father died ten years before Jim’s death, and I know that her example gave me the strength to give Jim the kind of death he wanted.

For example, when his oncologist insisted Jim be hospitalized for a blood clot, I said “No,” because Jim was done with hospitals by then. I was terrified, and I remember thinking about my mother in that moment and how terrified she must have felt when my dad had that stroke.

I am grateful that I can see the blessings in how my family shaped me.resiliency-faith-cancer

 

God-hope-letting go

Holding on and letting go

A woman I know became sick a few months ago—suddenly. I learned about her illness through social media. Her family asked for prayers and said she was “gravely ill,” but it was not until they used the word “hospice” that I realized how gravely ill she was. In a matter of a few weeks, she went from posting pictures of her husband, children and grandchildren on social media—to dying.

Life is so fragile.

When death is near, what is happening in the rest of the world seems distant and unimportant. The passing of a loved one becomes the most important thing and offers great clarity about what really matters.

I try to remember those moments—the times when I had great clarity about what truly matters in life.God-hope-letting goThese thoughts came back to me while reading the Gospel of Mark. I wonder if St. Mark had clarity as to what was really important, if he had a sense of urgency about spreading the story of Jesus’ life and message.

I thought of how God uses us to spread the Good News. Was Mark a writer? Or was he just compelled to write the story of Jesus? As I pondered Mark’s mission, I was reminded of some notes I received when my friend Jim was dying from brain cancer.

Several friends wrote to me during Jim’s illness reminding me that we were living the Paschal mystery—facing death and resurrection every day. It was true that we knew Jim would die soon and yet every day we found a way to laugh and every day we recited our litany of gratitude.

Jim was unable to read for most of the time he was sick, so I read his mail to him, and I also read any notes I received. One of the notes about the Paschal mystery sparked a conversation about the everyday deaths we faced.

Jim’s physical decline was an obvious death, but there were others that seemed as significant. We kept being faced with situations where we needed to let go so that we could truly live.

Holding on and letting go was part of our daily conversation.

At some point, I realized that it was not just at the time of one’s death, but that living the Paschal mystery was a continual invitation to see things in new ways, to look from different angles and to be open to change.God-hope-letting goAs I reflected, the words to Unsteady by X Ambassadors, popped into my mind.

Hold

Hold on

Hold on to me

‘Cause I’m a little unsteady

A little unsteady…If you love me, don’t let go.

Holding on can offer a sense of security and stability, but there’s always the question, What am I holding on to?

While our world may seem to be spiraling out of control, Christians are called to remain “steadfast in faith” (1 Peter 5:9), not caving in to popular culture or the “prowling Satan” but holding on to Jesus’ message of hope.

 

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.