Thursday, May 24, 2012

Lessons before Dying...

I have been surrounded by death these past couple of weeks, with three of our residents at the Lutheran Home dying in close succession. And this evening, I am quite emotionally exhausted after attending 3 funerals in as many days...only to find that another one of our residents seems to be nearing the end. More on that later...

Over the years, I have attended and officiated at innumerable funerals and I am biased enough to admit that I believe the Lutheran funeral service is quite beautiful and very meaningful...
and I have received comments to that effect by non-Lutheran attendees at many of the funerals I have been privileged to conduct. None of the three this week were Lutheran funerals and each was totally different from the other two...and I left each with very different feelings and reactions.

The first was held at an AME Zion church, a lovely little place with a beautiful cemetery. The sanctuary was filled, and the spirit of the service was a mixture of celebration and tears, filled with music and laughter and singing and tributes to the dear woman who had died.
I could see her family from my vantage point and feel certain that they were comforted and uplifted by the service, which felt like worship to me...even though the tradition was very different from my own, my spirit was buoyed and I left with a song in my heart and on my lips..."Soon and very soon we are goin' to see the King..."

The second was a graveside service for a gentleman who was not with us too long and though I arrived a bit late (traffic was much worse than I expected for late morning), I did note the path lined with American flags to honor his military service, the flag-draped coffin, and heard with appreciation the lovely old tunes played on the bagpipes by the fully-arrayed piper. Though quite brief, this more somber service seemed to be what the family wanted and they appeared comforted by the words of the minister and the plaintive sound of the pipes. Though I left in a quieter mood than the day before, I felt that this man had been honored and remembered in a way which would have pleased him.

And then there was today. The service was for a woman who had been larger-than-life, not in stature but in her attitude toward living, in her approach to each day. Known as "The Diva" by the staff at the Lutheran Home, she prided herself in having her hair done, her nails done, and her makeup and jewelry in place. Her smile was as briliant as her jewelry and I am certain she never met a stranger.
Guess you can tell she was one of my favorites (I know, we're not supposed to have those, but I'm human, after all.) As her COPD worsened, as she had several hospitalizations, I spent a great deal of time with her and we talked...or rather, she talked and I listened...to her feelings about dying, to her sense of loss at not being able to attend the funeral of her son who had died about 18 months ago...to her not wanting to let go of her daughter and grandchildren until she was sure they would be all right. And she cared deeply about her roommate, whose health seemed quite fragile and who was more quiet and withdrawn, drawing her into activities and sharing conversation with her...two aging women walking life's last path together, as close as sisters.

The funeral was held in the chapel at the funeral home...windowless, out any religious trappings, and with piped-in music playing, the setting left me feeling ill-at-ease, and as the service progressed, I found myself thinking over and over again, "This is not Opal...this is not her..." Where, I wondered, was the sense of joy and celebration her life engendered? Where was the sharing of stories, producing laughter and tears? Where was the acknowledgement of how much she would be missed by those of us who had cared so lovingly for her? I wanted color and light and balloons! or butterflies! and flowers- lots of flowers! I wanted laughter and a feeling of hope. I wanted the sense of Ms. Opal's presence, of her large, full, joy-filled life. Instead, I heard a few reminiscences shared by a young pastor who had obviously not known her well, and then what amounted to an "altar call", as those of us in attendance were admonished to mend our ways and search our hearts and confess our sins so that we might be assured...yes, assured, of our places in heaven. I can only hope and pray that her family was comforted by this somber, colorless service, because I know that I left saddened by what felt like a lack of tribute to a remarkable, colorful, full-living woman. 

Yesterday, upon returning too work, I visited with a woman who is nearing the end of her journey, and spent some time talking with her daughter, who told me stories about her mother...stories which were filled with meaning for her- and for me, as it gave me a much fuller picture of this woman I have only known as an old woman in her nineties. Her daughter painted a picture of a feisty and determined young woman, widowed at 25 with five chidren to raise. And raise them she did, doing whatever needed to be done to keep the family together, even as well-meaning family members wanted to split the children up. "I only hope I can be the kind of woman my mother has been," were the words of this loving, faithful daughter. We talked a little about the family's decision to refuse any measures to prolong life, understanding and appreciating that their mother has lived a long and full life and is now nearing the end of a long, difficult, and wonderful road...and I affirmed their decision. "We love her enough to let her go," her daughter told me.

And down the hall, at the other end of the building lies another woman, nearly the same age, being kept alive via a feeding tube, because her family is unwilling to acknowledge that what this dear woman has is not life any longer but simply existence. I know, I know...I'm treading on dangerous territory here. But isn't death a part of this life journey? and doesn't it come to all living things? Is is really so fearsome that we must fight it tooth and nail, hanging on at all costs, even when existence consists of only pain and suffering and holds no quality at all? Isn't the basis of our Christian faith the belief in resurrection? in the conquering of death? And isn't Love all about willing the best for the loved one?

I admit I am tired. It has been a long week, enmeshed as I have been by the intimate presence of death, by the rituals surrounding it, and by the decisions we make regarding it. And I know I've been rambling...even as I shed yet another tear for Ms. Opal, Mr. Bud, and Ms. Ida. Go with God, dear ones...rest in peace, and hope, and love...

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