The Life Lived is not to be grieved!
Yesterday was all hallows eve…Today is all souls day when we recall those we have loss and are missing from over the years. It seems strange but we, as church, only really talk about death twice a year now and at the time of Easter.
As Christians we technically believe that death is a joyous occasion for our loved ones for they have entered into the next part of life. They have moved from the physical to the spiritual…shedding the mortal coil. Yet we mourn the physical loss of a loved one and we mourn the gap that we perceive from the lack of their presence.
Working in hospice care and serving as a chaplain I see death more casually than most. I work with people who are in the process of dying. Some who are acutely aware and others perhaps not so much. I have worked with the Police where death often comes suddenly and though possible it is still unexpected.
One of my favorite professors would often be heard to say that it is not a matter of if we die but when. Dying is a physical and spiritual process. There seems to be a pattern that often arises in the dying process. A person will, in what we assume is a delusional state, will often speak of leaving or having to get the bags packed.
This is a spiritual awareness. Something deeper in ourselves when we are in the process of dying. Often animals can sense this in someone better than we can in ourselves. You know like a dog trained to anticipate seizures?
I have an excerpt form a story I want to share about a home for those suffering from extreme Alzheimer’s.
It WAS TIME TO STOP. I HAD NOW SPOKEN TO A HALF dozen people whose loved ones had died with Oscar by their side. I had plumbed their memories and emotions, and learned a lot more about what Alzheimer's does to families. But I was still surprised by how little I knew about Oscar.
I didn’t feel frustrated, though. While I didn't feel enlightened necessarily, I did feel oddly elated. The image I was left with was that of Oscar walking Cyndy Viveiros down the hall sitting with her in the darkened dining area-as he had with her mother in her final days. Maybe that's all he was: a companion, a sentient being who might accompany one person on their journey to the next world, or another through the grief of losing one they loved-a kind of underworld of its own. Wasn't that enough?
Did it matter if he had some extrasensory power of perception, if he could pick up on impending mortality before the best minds of medicine could? Maybe he was just a master of empathy. Maybe caring was his superpower.
I needed to talk to Mary.
"I've been thinking about what you said, that Oscar has forty-one family members and when one of them is in trouble he goes and stays with them."
It was a little before three in the afternoon and Mary and I were sitting in her office. She had asked the staff to assemble at the nurse's desk at three, and I had arrived in time to get a few words in with her before the changing of the guard. The worries of our last encounter-the latest funding crisis, the Sisyphusean task of running the floor of this nursing home-seemed to have vanished, and she was looking calm and collected. She was also being quite modest.
"Oh, David, that's just my theory," she said. "What do I know? You have to remember, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool animal lover. It's not like I'm objective."
"Objectivity has its limits," I said. "Remember, I started out not believing in Oscar. To be honest, I thought you guys were all a little crazy."
"You know what the sign says," said Mary with a smile. "You don’t have To BE crazy to work HERE-BUT IT HELPS!”
"But now I think that Oscar has some purpose," I continued. "Maybe he's meant to help the residents-the family members, as you put it. But also their family; they may be the ones who suffer the most."
"Don't forget the staff" said Mary. She was fully engaged now, playing Watson to my Holmes. "You can't work up here and not become involved in the lives of your patients. We come to love these people, David. Their loss grieves us, too. In the end, we often become as close spiritually and emotionally to these patients as their own family members."
"Does it help to have seen so many die with Alzheimer's?" I asked. "Doesn't it make it any easier?"
She thought for a minute before answering. "It makes it easier to understand what's happening," she said finally, "but not why. Why would anyone be afflicted like this? Why would God allow this to happen?"
Though we seldom touched on the subject of religion, I took a chance and asked her, "Do you Pray, Mary? I mean have you asked God why?"
She smiled without directly answering the question. "I don't think He'd answer right away," she said.
No, I thought. He'll take a message and get back to you.
'As l’ve said before, the thing you have to remember about domesticated animals," Mary said, as if she'd been reading my mind, "is that people started to keep them because they had a purpose. They worked. If you were a dog, you were herding sheep or something. Any cat that wasn't doing some serious mouse hunting around the farm wasn't going to be there for long. They had to earn their keep."
"So you think that's Oscar's job," I said, "to take care of people?"
Mary shrugged. "Why not, maybe he's just more highly evolved than the other cats. Maybe" it's his way of paying the rent." She checked her watch and smiled at me. "We're all just guests here, you know."
We are all just Guests here. Don’t ask me I am just passing through or sorry but I am only visiting this planet. This reading is about a cat that only purpose in life is to accompany those about to die. He seems to know long before there are any signs and the staff at this nursing home specializing in Alzheimer’s has come to trust the cat. Eventually the Doctor who wrote the book does as well.
The book doesn’t offer any answers as to why we must die or why we must suffer or is there God. It does say that when the time comes the body and spirit make a shift and for some reason this cat could sense it.
All souls day the day we celebrate those who have passed. So, of course, we get the dead guy gospel reading. In the Gospel it says; “The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth.” But what does today say about life? I cannot help but think of Terrance McNally’s interpretation of this in his play Corpus Christie.
“Simon There was an old man named Lazarus. He’d been dead for six days and was starting to smell to high to high Heaven. He had a wife and six daughters. I wish you could hear the racket they were making.
Joshua Arise, Lazarus.
Simon I think this was one of the practical miracles. I mean, there was no big reason for it. Lazarus wasn’t a big cheese or even an especially nice guy. Joshua just couldn’t stand the noise.
Joshua Shut up, women. Thank you. I say Lazarus, arise.
Lazarus What is the matter with you? You’d think you’d seen a ghost!
Joshua You have been asleep, Lazarus not for six days but for all the years of your life. Now live as if your very Life depended on it.
Lazarus How do I live? Teach me.
Joshua Be awake every moment and give thanks to God the Father for it. Give back as much- no more! - Than you have been given. Laugh. Fill your lungs with His good air and pray. You have all forgotten to pray.”
In the gospel it speaks of Lazarus being physically bound, but in the play, I believe Terrance clears this up for us. Lazarus has been bound all his life. He has been squandering it. How often are we moving from pay check to paycheck, from this need to that need, from this desire to that desire? From one project to another without stopping, looking and being present? Is that living?
At this time when we remember our loved ones, friends and family, we do not recall how they got up went to work, bought groceries, read a newspaper and went to bed. We actually recall the good times, the loving moments, the special meals we shared the joys and yes the sorrows. We celebrate the lives lived…not the chores done, but the Life.
We often think of dying as an end. It is the end of our interaction with that person we loved. That part of our life will never be the same again; can never happen with that person again. We grieve the loss of the persona and we grieve the part of ourselves that went with them. We grieve the life lived.
So as a final thought I want to say live life! Let those you love and care about know it every day. When they are gone celebrate that life as we do today we celebrate lives lived not lives lost. So, as Troy Perry might say…My dearest Saints happy all Saints day!