Monday, January 28, 2013

Denying Death and Some Kind of Ecstasy

            Facing death, we often slip into denial.

            Sometimes such denial is tragic. I remember a friend who had terminal lung disease. Over time the disease left him constantly out of breath. He was confined to his home, then to his living room chair, and finally to bed. No doctor offered any hope for healing.

            Remarkably, my friend refused to face his impending death. When I tried to talk about it, he claimed that he wasn’t worried because he was waiting for a miracle. When I brought up some issues related to his will, he said, “later." When I said he needed to check into a hospice, he claimed my lack of faith was going to be the death of him. A few friends dropped by to pray for his healing and anoint him.

            And then, one day, he died.

            Now, I don’t want to give the impression that my friend was an idiot. Death is the last enemy, says the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 13:26). It is an especially difficult one to face in your forties. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross told us long ago that in such circumstances denial is a natural emotional response.

            Still, right to the end, my friend remained in denial about his impending death. And that was sad on a number of levels. His affairs were not in order. He didn’t say goodbye to all his friends and family. He wouldn’t go out in public because he didn’t want to be embarrassed by the paraphernalia of dying he had to drag along. For months, he isolated himself from the world.

            My friend was an extreme case. The truth, however, is that most of us also deny death, often in mundane and thoughtless ways. Euphemisms such as “passing” and “no longer with us,” are used to get around mentioning death. Many of us stubbornly refuse to make wills, take out life insurance, prepare Advance Health Care Directives, or name someone to have power of attorney. We don’t have conversations with loved ones about end-of-life health care or financial issues. We don’t take children to funerals for fear of upsetting them. And, denial of death sometimes means putting more emphasis on praying for a miracle than on praying for courage or comfort.

            I’ve also noticed that people have begun speaking of funerals as “celebrations of life.” Family members will sometimes say that, “You know, Joe wouldn’t want us to be sad. He wants us to be happy.”

            Of course, when an elderly person who has suffered finally dies, it is natural that we are relieved that the suffering is over. At the same time, even the death of elderly people robs us of their company, their wisdom, and often, their love. To celebrate a life-well-lived at a funeral is fine; but this celebration should not come at the cost of giving ample opportunity for those who mourn to weep.

            Of course, denial shields us from the inevitable. Denial means never having to think about the pain or circumstances that might accompany our own end. But denial does so in the manner of a narcotic that sends us on a trip to Never Never Land.

            Denial also robs us of our ability to finish well, to care properly for our loved ones, and to deal with our own hopes and fears. Denial robs us, in other words, of the ability to fully live the time we have left by leaving a good part of that time in shadows we are too afraid to explore.

            Finally, denial even robs us of solace, of what Canadian composer Bruce Cockburn, in his song, “Wondering Where the Lions Are” describes as, “thinking about eternity.” A time, hopes Cockburn, when perhaps even “some kind of ecstasy” will get ahold of us.

(Do you have an example of denying death? What do you think? Leave a response!)

1 comment:

  1. This post of yours came to mind in the midst of the comments posted on news and social media by various people in relation to the horrifying murder of Tim Bosma. I was dismayed to see so many CRC people, avowed Christians, post things that went on and on about how Tim now sits in glory, how he will be waiting for his wife when she dies, how God has conquered death, how God is winning the battle against Satan, how happy Tim must now be in heaven, etc. Someone even posted Lord's Day 1 from the Heidelberg Catechism. Yikes! These posts made me very uncomfortable and brought me back to the time when my brother was killed in an accident and the Minister suggested we sing "Praise God from Whom all Blessings Flow" after the first visitation in the funeral home. "WTF???" was my thought at the time. It then struck me that the kind of reactions I refer to above is also a denial of the pain of death and veers towards an unwillingness to allow those closest to the person who dies their deep, painful grief. At some point, one wonders if this is less about being there for the family, expressing sympathy and acknowledging profound loss that some misguided attempt at "witnessing", in which case it starts to become more about the commentator showing off his/her Christian conviction than an expression of sympathy for the family, although I would have to say I do not think that this is necessarily the intention. My own experience with this tells me that it puts pressure on the grieving family to put aside their pain and be grateful that their loved one is with Jesus, when of course what they want with every fibre of their being at that point is to have the person with them, and would rip the person out of the arms of Jesus given half a chance. I was then heartened when I listed to CBC's interview with the interim Ancaster CRC pastor, John Veenstra, who spoke well and meaningfully, ackowledging the horror and pain and even underlying the point that Christians are certainly exempted from this. He said that at the Ancaster service, they took a page from the book of Job. Someone rent their clothes and put ashes on them; they lamented in word and deed as a way of showing solidarity with the family's deep grief. We need to be allowed to lament for a time when we have suffered a painful loss. Perhaps we Christians can do best to help create space for lament as Job's friends did for him.

    Alyce Dunnewold


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