In college, I took a religion course entitled “Death and Dying.”
I can’t remember anything from that class. Except, I really appreciated Dr. Crawford, even though he was a bit of a hard ass. This was my second class with him, and in one of the two classes, he returned an essay of mine filled with red pen marks and at the end wrote, “You write the way you talk. And the way you talk is wrong. C+.”
In seminary, we were required to take pastoral care classes. And sure, we did role playing and read books about offering care and heard lectures and stories from people who had experience. But that’s all that it was. Stories. Lectures. Role-playing.
I never took CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education), but even if I did, I’d like to think that — no matter how many units you took — death and dying is something you can never really “prepare” for.
Never have I felt any smaller or any more finite than sitting with someone in hospice care.
Or spending time with someone who was dying.
I sit there with them, and I selfishly pray that they won’t ask me any theological questions, because I would have no idea how to answer.
And most of the times, I don’t know what to say. When the conversation goes silent, I have the urge the break the silence with something. With anything.
It took me a long time to understand and accept that silence is okay.
Or, at the least, it’s far better than saying anything to break the silence that has filled the entire room.
It also took me a long time to understand and accept that “I don’t know” is an appropriate answer.
Or, at the least, it’s far better than making up something or muttering nothing but cliches to buy time or to make sure the person knows you’re not an idiot. “I don’t know” doesn’t reflect your intelligence or lack of. I personally would’ve appreciated people throughout my faith journey that would’ve simply said, “I don’t know” instead of “you just need to pray more” or “have more faith, and you won’t have questions like that” or other type of BS cliches that didn’t answer my question but left me feeling crappy for asking them.
This past week, I had a wonderful opportunity to meet with a couple where one of them is on hospice care.
The husband was doing everything he possibly can to make her feel as comfortable as possible — even though he had a hard time moving in his advanced age.
We talked about her health. Their life together. The adventures of their grandchildren entering and graduating college. The weather. Everything but the road ahead.
It wasn’t intentionally avoided. It never came up. And I didn’t want to force the conversation that way. But it was lingering heavily in our hearts and our minds. How could it not?
I honestly don’t know if death can ever lose its sting. I mean, walking away from this conversation stung. The idea of death, it stings. And hurts. And is scary. But not scared-of-the-dark scary or OMG-there’s-a-spider-10-feet-away-from-me scary. It goes deeper than that. Much deeper. Maybe it is the uncertainty. Maybe it’s the idea of how can you be here one minute and the next… gone?
I don’t think I’ll ever be “comfortable” in dealing with death and dying. And that’s okay too. In fact, I don’t want to be. I feel that if I’m “comfortable”, I may have become calloused and have made death even colder; that death has become such a routine that it has lost its sting. But if death loses its sting that way, for me, that would mean that life would’ve lost its sanctity through the process. I feel I’d be calloused towards life as well as death. And that’s something I can’t afford.
During the early part of my ministerial career, death and dying was something I could avoid and not deal with. That’s no longer an option for me. But to be honest, I wish it still was, here and there.
Even though I mentioned earlier that I don’t know if death could ever lose its sting, what I do fully know and wholeheartedly believe is that this end is not the end.
Which makes the “sting” very temporary.