Spark, January 2010
15 Rutherford Place
New York, NY 10003
|New York Yearly Meeting News|
|The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)||January 2010|
|Editor, Paul Busby|
Death and Dying
Robin Whitely, Chatham-Summit Meeting
I start the task of writing this introduction to Spark by spreading all the submissions out on the bed. Miss Ming, the cat, is forced to abandon what she considers to be her rightful space. It’s overwhelming. Seventeen articles! I read and reread, searching for a logic, a thread, that will tie my introduction together. I find myself wanting to provide a path, an easy portal for Friends to enter this amazing garden that lies before me—a beautiful prairie garden that has sprung up in response to an invitation to Friends to submit their thoughts and experiences on the subject of death and dying. But it doesn’t take me long to recognize a certain still, small voice: Do not trample on the flowers! Give them space, let them be and “speak” for themselves.
Why do I recognize this voice so readily? It’s a brief tale worth telling—and rather telling in and of itself. When I initially took on the task of soliciting articles for this edition of Spark, I did so without questioning the subject, the language, or the timing. No problem. Twenty-four hours later, however, I was in a sweat, at least metaphorically. Death and dying? Do we have to use those exact words in the solicitation? January? One of the darkest, most light-starved months of the year? Wouldn’t it be more logical, more palatable to make death and dying the subject of our March Spark, closer to the Christian holiday of Easter (implying that there is hope, even resurrection, beyond our tears and grief)? When I shared my struggle with other members of the Communications Committee, I found that I was not entirely alone, if not on the timing of the issue, then on the language. I fairly quickly made my peace with the January timing of the issue by seeking to position it as a time we find ourselves “looking toward the promise of spring.” Then began the search for a metaphor for death and dying, or at least more agreeable language that would not frighten or turn Friends away from writing for Spark or reading it. There were several suggestions including my own inadequate if not dreadful contribution (essentially death = winter).
In the end, I was given the amazing grace of hearing, deeply hearing, the voices of several Friends who argued gently for courage and candor. And this was eventually what went out to Friends in October: a clear call to hear from Friends on the subject of death and dying. Just that simple. Free of any attempts to sugarcoat the topic or shape the content. In other words, without manipulation, obfuscation, or denial. (See Paula Peterson’s article “To Live Before We Die.”)
The result, now spread before my eyes, is a prairie garden that was allowed to take shape naturally beneath a wide-open sky as Friends were willing and able to share. It is rich, bountifully fed by both rain and sunshine, and, above all, it is deeply honest. So I invite Friends to enter into this garden. Find a spot, sit among the grasses, flowers, seeds, wind and listen to what each has to say. You may find, as I have, that you will be lifted, perhaps feel less alone and possibly, paraphrasing William Penn, more able to bear dying.
A brief word about metaphors. I am not against them (witness the garden image on page 1). It’s just that I learned it was not my place to suggest the metaphor for this edition of Spark, but rather for Friends to do so as they put their experiences onto paper. Death, dying, and the dying are described in many articles using truth-seeking metaphors of great beauty (“minister,” “teacher,” “friend,” the “final gift of life”) that will surely speak to many.
An important word of thanks. To all those Friends who contributed to this issue of Spark, we say thank you for being such courageous, generous Friends in so many ways.
Why Does God Allow Death?
Lori Heninger, Shrewsbury Meeting
My nephew Jeffrey, of the blond hair and sweet disposition, was six when he died from Wilms’ Tumor, a congenital tumor of the kidneys. Jeffrey’s favorite joke was, “If you’re American when you go into the bathroom, and you’re American when you come out of the bathroom, what are you when you are in the bathroom? Your-a-peein’!” His mom and dad, Nancy and Bob, are two of the most wonderful parents I could imagine; they gave their lives over to the kids. And Jeffrey died. It was a terrible, slow death; the tumor grew so that his abdomen was extended in a manner that made him look advancedly pregnant; at the wake, they put a stuffed bear over him to try to cover the distention. The doctors didn’t know what to do. They provided Bob and Nancy with options for treatment, and often Bob and Nancy had to decide. How do you cope with that? Deciding what to do to try to save your son? Without medical education, without guarantees. We all watched him slip away, watched the grief of his parents and his siblings, could do nothing but be there and watch, witness, and wait. And he died.
How can one understand this? How do you incorporate this into your life’s meaning? Into your view of the world? Into your thinking about God? There were prayer groups for Jeffrey, vigils in the local playground every week where the neighborhood got together and stood together, men and women, and prayed for his recovery. Why didn’t God answer this prayer? Why would God cure one child and not another?
I don’t know, cannot pretend to know. My friend Terri says that her version of God could not include the idea that there was an entity that saved one child and not another. And Jeffrey’s death has shaped my thinking about God. The American Cancer Society writes:
Between 400 and 500 new cases of Wilms’ tumors are diagnosed each year in the United States.
About 6% of all cancers in children are Wilms’ tumors. Wilms’ tumor occurs most often in the first 5 years of life, usually around ages 3 and 4. It is also more common among African Americans and among girls.
The overall five-year survival rate for children with Wilms’ tumor is more than 90%. The five-year survival rate refers to the percentage of patients who live at least five years after their cancer is diagnosed. Most of these patients are cured.
So of the 400–500 children that are diagnosed every year, 90+ percent go on to a five-year survival rate. That means if we use 450 as the median, fewer than 45 kids will die.
Someone has to be in the 45. There are 45 children that are in the 45, and perhaps if all are in intact families, 90 bereft parents. The grief of Bob and Nancy started me thinking about infant and child mortality. I was working at the Quaker United Nations Office at the time, and did some reading. Statistics vary, but it is estimated that from 25,000 to 26,000 children per day die from preventable causes, much of the death due to malnutrition, lack of potable water, and lack of sanitation and their consequences. Let’s say it’s 25,000 children a day. That’s potentially 50,000 grieving parents every day. Every day. Tomorrow, it could be 50,000 new grieving parents. And the next day, and the next day, and every day. It’s happening right now, as you are reading this. And I believe God feels every one of those deaths. Feels the grief of the families and that pain is as intense to God as it is to the humans here on earth. Jeffrey’s death made me see the story of Jesus in a different way. I’ve never been one to believe that “no one comes to the Father but through me/Jesus,” and I am particularly chagrined by the patriarchal orientation of the whole thing, but Jeffrey’s death has, in my limited way, allowed me to see the story of Jesus as the opportunity that God set up to comprehend loss; God sent part of itself to Earth as a human to know the pain of the loss of a child because there is no greater grief, no greater tragedy. God wanted to understand us, the same as many of us strive to understand God. And maybe that means that coming to God demands patience, willing service, conscious sacrifice, and a desire to understand the pain (and the joy) of the other, not through a blue-eyed brown-haired man, the image of Jesus that I grew up with, or a set of rules that is codified and static. John’s book in the New Testament opens with, “In the beginning there was the Word and the Word was with God and the word was God”; words can be written or spoken and for a word to be spoken there must be breath which implies movement and someone to say the Word and someone to hear the Word. It implies a relationship and that relationship, the exchange of breath (like the Maori do when they greet one another), of the Word, results in creation, in creating God between us.
So if we see the Word as static, someone has to be in the 45. Someone has to be in the 25,000. Or maybe there’s an option. Maybe what we need is to look inside ourselves for the Word that is alive, and ask if this is true. There are people, right now, working on changing the statistics for Wilms’ Tumor and others working to ensure potable water for children. There are people creating solar stoves, and working with communities to integrate the stoves into normal routines, so that displaced women and girls know how to use them in place of cooking over wood fires and subsequently don’t have to forage for firewood and risk rape or death. But it doesn’t have to be this big—each of us can look around and within and see what needs to be done.
Maybe we need to think of no one coming to the Father but through Jesus in a different way. Maybe it is through our grief, through our basic humanity, through our joy, through our talking and listening, that we come to God, that we actually create God in our midst; we don’t come to the fixed “Father,” but we come to creation; God created us in God’s image and we are then creating God, it is a wheel within a wheel, a Möbius loop. And our responsibility within that creation is to ensure that others are able to experience their basic humanity. Not necessarily in the way we think it should happen, but in the way that is created when we speak and hear, when we meet as beings. I think it involves laying down our ideas about what should be given and what should come back to us. It does not mandate that we give up who we are, but it does necessitate our willingness to step out of our own way, to give room to the other. The Bible includes the passage “In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2). (And I am sorry again for the patriarchal reference, it’s just what’s in the book, not what I believe.) It certainly sounds like there are different places that one “goes” after death; why would this be? Why would there be “many rooms” prepared and not the same one over and over? Or why aren’t we all in one big room? Maybe because we are all different and God knows this? Maybe it’s on purpose so we can create because if we were all the same there would be no spark? If this is the case, how do we translate this understanding to our world so that there can be many rooms here? So that the belongings of everyone can be brought into the house that is our world? And that may mean giving away some of the belongings we cherish to make room for the furniture of others, maybe living with knickknacks we don’t necessarily like. And using that as a reminder every day that we may need to hurt a little until the hurting no longer happens because we understand the other, are comfortable on their couch and allow them to be comfortable on ours. Because although God feels everything, I think that, like us, God loves to feel joy. Wants us to feel joy. Wants us to revel in life. And how can that happen unless we are all reveling? That is our responsibility, to recognize everyone’s humanity through waiting and speaking and listening and struggling and creating and serving and we can allow that to lead us to the discovery of ourselves and God and joy. Because that is what’s at the other end of the wrenching, twisting, crying, feeling ashamed, guilty, wrong, angry, justified, self-righteous, intimidated, anchorless, it is being led to where you are supposed to be. It does not make Jeffrey’s death, the death of any child, any less painful, any less devastating, does not take away the hurt, does not mend the terrible rending. Each of those tragedies is a reminder that we, as we are able, need to do what we can to prevent what we can, and to protect what we can, and to heal what we can, and to comfort as we can. It is in the doing that God is created, and that is the miracle.
The Gift of a Mother’s Love
Peter Lang, Chatham-Summit Meeting (formerly Summit Meeting)
…is it possible to befriend our dying gradually and to live open to it, trusting that we have nothing to fear? Is it possible to prepare for our death with the same attentiveness that our parents had in preparing for our birth? Can we wait for our death as for a friend who wants to welcome us home?... Will our death give new life, new hope, and new faith to our friends…? …How can we prepare ourselves for our death in such a way that our dying will be a new way for us to send our and God’s spirit to those whom we have loved and who have loved us?
These words were the theme for a program presented at Summit Monthly Meeting in April 2005, titled “No Work Undone: Preparing for the End of Life as an Act of Love.” As a member of Ministry and Counsel, I was asked to comment on the spiritual aspects of preparation for the end of life. I recall that my first reaction was that this was a heavy responsibility that I was not prepared to do. I am sure that this was due to my own fear of death that I was unwilling to face. Now, almost five years later, my mother is dying and I still find the face of death difficult to accept. My mother, Janice, is 97 years old and is almost totally immobilized by a recent stroke, as well as suffering with chronic arthritis. My mother knows that she is dying and tells my brother, Mike, and me that she has had a good long life. She openly shares with us that she is ready to die and that she is not afraid. Our family and friends, as well as the residents and caretakers at the nursing home where she has lived for the past three years, all know that she is dying. So why is it so hard for me to write these words: My mother is dying?
I remember at an early age, maybe eight or nine, asking my mother the age-old question “Who is God?” Mom was very busy working in the kitchen at the time, and she paused to tell me the answer: “God is Love.” Without missing a beat, she resumed her business of taking care of our family. There was no long theological explanation and I learned early on from my mother that actions speak louder than words. In looking back on our family life when I was growing up in southwestern Ohio, I now realize that it was how my mother lived her life that made God’s love real to those who knew her. She devoted her love to my father, my brother, and myself, to our extended family and friends, and even to those so-called strangers who have come into her life. Actually, my brother has described our mother as having never met a stranger. She has such a love for people that is so open and real. Even now, as Mom struggles with the physical and mental suffering of an aging body, she continues to teach me and others around her that God is Love. She has taught me that love, like a pebble being dropped into a pond, sends its ripples outward in ever widening circles.
During my latest visit with Mom at the nursing home, it was often too difficult for her to speak and we would spend our time together in the loving silence. While sharing the silence together, I realized that her love has been with me from the very beginning. I began to see that when we have faith that Love is always present in our lives, we can begin to let go of our fear of death. Once we accept Love as our true identity, and recognize that love and life are one, we can let go not only of our fear of death, but also of our fear of the future. It is from this unconditional love that we receive the true meaning and purpose of our life. This healing love is beyond us and within us and continually seeks us out.
As I continue on my spiritual journey, at age 67, I am deeply grateful for the many spiritual teachers that I have had in my life. I do believe that it is true that we are all students and teachers, as we learn from one another. My mother was my first teacher and she will always be my spiritual mentor. I do agonize over the pain she is suffering at this stage of her life, and I pray daily that a healing will relieve her struggle. I have been truly blessed with the gift of my mother’s unconditional love, which I know comes from a Greater Love. As a Quaker, it is my faith and practice to live the best I can from this Center of Love. Although I realize that the only thing that separates me from dying is time, I pray that I will have the faith to accept death as just another loving step in my spiritual journey.
Reflections on my Father’s “Good Death”
Anne Wright, Scarsdale Meeting
In the days before Dad went into the hospital, he did things he always did, despite increasing shortness of breath and complaints of chest pain. We now know that sometime early in the week before he died he called the Maine Memorial Society for information about simple plans for cremation. As we went through his desk we learned that in that same week he had paid several overdue bills. On Friday evening he performed his routine duty of cutting Mom’s toenails, which she can’t reach. In the evening he watched the winter Olympics, and very excited about that, he called both of his daughters to assure that we were watching.
Dad went into Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston on Saturday, February 7, 1998, with severe shortness of breath and recurrent chest pain, coughing up blood. There they diagnosed bilateral pneumonia and a mild recent myocardial infarct. Knowing the potential seriousness of the situation, I flew and Nancy drove to Maine that day. Despite a brief period in which he said to Mom, “Maybe I’ll give you another couple months,” Dad’s body didn’t respond to treatment.
There was a growing gentle energy as family and “family-by-love” went to Dad from everywhere. Even as people came and went that week, the energy was sustained. Variously related children and grandchildren arrived from college, an internship, or home. Dad’s primary concern about the college group was that coming to be with him not detract from their school work. He was amazed at such an outpouring of love and the presence of so many in response to his illness.
Hands-on healing: Even with maximum doses of morphine, he was restless and having pain. Dad agreed to have Nancy and me try Therapeutic Touch. We stood on opposite sides of the bed doing our initial assessment of the energy field, the full length of his body. We proceeded to smooth out the field, to loosen up and move energy from areas where it seemed to be congested or hot, then smoothing freely flowing healing energy from head to toe. Within just a few brief minutes Dad was snoring. We used this technique again that day, and each time he was released into quiet sleep. During the days in the hospital, we massaged his hands and arms with Red Clover salve. Nurse Anne gave him long back rubs. Pastor Nancy did foot massage.
In an effort to assist his body to respond to treatment, and with the assurance that he would be sedated and not in pain, he agreed to the use of a respirator. We discussed with him that if it became clear that he could not survive, we would discontinue the machine.
The ministry of presence: On the last morning when my husband, Bob, returned he went to dad and took his hand while the immediate family went into a conference with the medical team. Bob stayed quietly by dad’s bed until the end, massaging his feet and chanting softly “love you, love you Webb, love you Dad.” He didn’t leave. He didn’t want to eat or drink. He just kept watch. The rest of us came and went. I was so tired and unfocused that I couldn’t sit still.
Saying goodbye: That same day everyone visited in twos or threes to say goodbye. Roukyatou, age 2, went in to see him with machines and tubes all around. He was heavily sedated and appeared to be asleep. We talked to him. I suggested that Rouky tell Pop “Bye-bye.” But how could she understand this kind of goodbye? However, in the following days she explained that Pop had died and wouldn’t live with us anymore.
Singing and praying him through the passage: After the respirator was removed and our nurse had bathed him, we returned to Dad’s ICU room. Some family members had left. Charlotte, Anne and Nancy, Bob and Jonathan, Dana, Bria and Michelle, Yvonne, Julie and Karyn and Pastor Mark and Barbara Webster were all there—and Sue, our nurse. We sang hymns and gospel songs, quoted scripture and poetry, prayed, told stories from the past, and sang funny songs that Dad used to sing with us when we were kids. We hugged each other and cried softly together so as not to bother him. Whenever a shoulder was needed, one was there. Mostly we stood circled around the bed, many hands on Dad, and holding each other. I felt that I saw his spirit rise out of the confines of the flesh opening to the all-in-one.
Simple Aftercare: As Dad’s death was inevitable, we began planning how to handle the work that must follow. Local Friends Elizabeth and Peter Jonitis turned out to be the classic Friendly helpers, calling the crematorium and City Hall for information about simple cremation.
We considered transporting Dad’s body to the crematorium ourselves in the van. With some initial hesitation and after thoughtful discussion, Mom and all agreed. We obtained the medical examiners’ certificate and a copy of authority to remove to cremate. At City Hall the certificates were certified. At the crematorium we purchased a flat pine tray with a cardboard cover in which to move the body. Just as we were leaving to do the transport, two of Dad’s children-by-love arrived, and yes, of course they would go with us. It was daunting to leave that precious body at the crematorium, but we weren’t alone!
Deborah Dickinson, Butternuts Meeting
As my mother awaited transition into what lies beyond embodied life, I realized that I wanted to share with her all sorts of things about my life and ask her about hers—and time was limited.
Someone suggested that I tape our conversations, which I did, but her voice was so weak when I started that little is audible. She did recall awaking from a dream as a youngster and running out to the gathered grownups exclaiming excitedly, “I’m gong to die, I’m going to die!” She’d been so curious about what happens after death, and now she awoke from a dream just on the brink of finding out! She believed, at 79, that she’d be passing on to “oblivion,” and that wasn’t frightening. In the time between her deciding not to have any further treatment (including stomach tube feedings) in early January 1986 and her death March 20, 1986, there was time for relationships to grow.
What a joy to have my sister Sarah Faith, also a nurse, living here then and sharing in her care at home. Our siblings and their children had time to visit, and we wrote Mom’s obituary together with her input. Mom wanted to see The Color Purple, which was just coming to theaters. We weren’t able to arrange that, but one brother brought a video machine and we rented special movies to enjoy together. Dozens of friends and family with whom she’d corresponded over the years sent musical and written messages. The Meeting joined family and friends here in our home for a memorial service shortly after her death and we had another gathering in the summer at the island where she and dad had been married in 1932. Some time later close family gathered for sharing of memories sitting on the grass at our grandparents’ grave. A new small hole had been dug, into which we poured Mom and Dad’s ashes (both having been sent back from the medical school to which they’d been donated).
In my experience accompanying loved ones in transition to the next stage, I’ve learned the rewards of trying to work through “unfinished business’; of reaching out to others for help and finding such wondrous responses; of letting myself be in the present fully with another; of finding the buoyancy of community; of trust in a loving spirit.
The same applies to the joys of accompanying those I know who don’t expect to depart soon.
An Experience of Death
Pam Gosner, Chatham-Summit Meeting
It was sometime well after midnight. The nurse in charge of the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit had made the resident stop trying to convince me to allow him to hook my unconscious husband up to a ventilator (against his expressed wishes); she had also turned off the sound on the monitors. The lights were low and everything was quiet. Less and less often, my husband drew a shallow breath and there would be a small peak on the green line.
We had battled for 15 months, ever since a routine heart valve repair had gone wrong, leaving him with a terrible infection. Although the infection was gone, the various attempts at repair had left his heart too damaged to go on, and he had decided to forego any further treatment. We both knew this was the end, as he slipped into a coma. Mindful of reports that hearing is the last sense to leave, I held Ken’s hand and told him he could go on, that I would be all right—hoping this was not a lie.
Something signaled the nurse when the green line went flat, and she came into the cubicle. Even without that, I knew the moment when he died; once one has seen death, there is no mistaking it. And I was aware of that which makes a person alive, even when unconscious, when it departed. We are not our bodies—there is no doubt of that.
What surprised me was the feeling of holiness.
I had never before been in the presence of death. When I was 13, I was smuggled into my dying mother’s hospital room to say my farewells; and what seemed like an unusual number of people in my life since then had died, but I never actually witnessed a death.
Since that experience I have learned to think of death, not as something frightening, but as something that could be a friend, especially to those who are suffering and tired. There are still many things that I fear, especially as I feel my time on earth becoming shorter. I fear helplessness, loss, loneliness, and pain, but not death.
I still know nothing about what comes afterward, and my Quaker faith is silent on the subject. If I were more Christ-centered, perhaps I could rest in the belief that there is a future in Heaven, but I’m not.
I love to tell myself stories about how it might be: That dying could be like going on a journey to an exciting new place. Or that we are given a choice to come to earth in order to learn, and our real existence is on a spiritual plane. I am somewhat comforted by the fact that this is one thing that everyone must do, and by the thought that everything we once cared about still exists in time; we just cannot go back, at least not while we are alive. As William Hazlitt said, “There was a time when we were not: this gives us no concern—why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be?”
If it must be an act of will for me to trust God, still I do. And I am thankful to have experienced the presence of Spirit at the end of life.
Just Passing Through
James Schultz, Conscience Bay Meeting
It was very hot on the morning of June 27, 2001, when I was having an old sailboat brought to my house for winter storage. I had assembled a number of concrete blocks and pieces of wood for the mover’s use in storing the boat. Unfortunately, the blocks were too far from where the sailboat had to be placed—and therein lies my story. On the hottest day of the summer of 2001, I tried to move 27 concrete blocks in a wheelbarrow through soft ground a distance of 75 feet while being 100 pounds overweight. Two hours later I was in a hallway of a hospital that didn’t have a cardiac unit, and I could hear the public address system asking if there was a heart specialist in the house. Fortunately for me, there was.
However, before Dr. Cesar could get me on my way to a hospital where they eventually inserted two stents, watched me for a few days, and sent me home, they lost me twice. At least, that’s what they told me. I’d like to share with you the one instance I remember.
It was the type of heart attack where you feel like there’s an elephant on your chest. In the beginning I thought I might have suffered heat stroke from overexertion. However, once the chest pains came I knew I was in for a long day. It took a while to get to a phone to call 911, and the pain was very intense. The ambulance must have hit every bump they could find on the way to the hospital. The poor young women operating the equipment in the ambulance were on the phone with the ER and praying up a storm that I wouldn’t die until I got to the hospital.
Once I got there, there was no room at the inn and I lay on a gurney in a hallway with several emergency workers asking me questions and talking to each other. The chaplain showed up and my wife as well. In between I would be vomiting into a bucket every few minutes. When I wasn’t vomiting I had my eyes closed tight and just kept praying: Jesus help me. I was just trying to handle the pain. It was bad. All of a sudden the pain was gone. Enveloped in a cocoon of warmth, I experienced a sense of peace unlike any I had ever felt before. I could still hear the ER workers, but their voices were getting dimmer and I felt like I was floating upward away from them.
All of a sudden I heard Dr. Cesar shout: “Jim! Look at me!”I opened my eyes, and he was right in my face. He told me they had lost me and had to use the defibrillator to get me back. They told me later it happened again but while I know there were times I was out of it, I don’t recall any similar experience like the first one.
Since my heart attack, I have had part of my colon removed because of colon cancer and undergone chemotherapy for a few months as a follow-up. I also was treated for prostate cancer more recently. None of these cancer threats have caused me any anxiety. I tell people that being dead is a nice experience, it’s the dying part that hurts. To me the warm feeling I experienced was the love of God. The Apostle Paul wrote that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord and again that the peace of God surpasses all understanding.
My doctors don’t always appreciate it when I choose not to use the prescriptions they offer me, but I’m close to 70 years old and I don’t have a problem dying. My body isn’t aging as well as my soul is, and I don’t need any side effects from medications. So long as I can be useful to those who need me I will be happy to hang around. But I don’t want to live just for the sake of living. As the song says, “I’m just passing through.”
After a while, I moved the conversation on to her medical problems. I told her that she would die, “but not today.” We would do everything to relieve any pain she might have and make her comfortable. We would provide her with all the care for her cancer she wished to have, and she would be able to refuse care she didn’t want. We would help her to plan for future care, and a social worker would help her to settle any unfinished business. She said that these issues were important and she was grateful for our help, but that something else was bothering her. “What is it, then?” I asked her. “I don’t know how to speak with my daughters about my death,” she replied. “I want to be able to talk about it. I don’t want them to pity me, and although I’d like to spare them the pain of grieving for me, I know that they will in fact feel sadness. We have had some rough spots in our relationships over the years, but they are not important now. We are on good terms.” I asked her if she would like me to be present when she started this conversation with her daughters, and she said yes.
As we were speaking, one of the daughters, accompanied by her husband, entered the room. I urged her to share with them what she had just told me, and she did, in simple and very moving language. They wept and embraced. I explained to the family that this was the beginning of the conversation, not the end. They promised that they would try to help each other continue talking even when it was painful. At last Mildred seemed more comfortable, everyone dried their eyes, and I wished them well and left the room.
As I turned the corner, I caught sight of my resident behind me, leaning against the wall. He looked at me with the most frightful expression and said, “My God, I am going to die one day.” He was 28 years old. I shepherded him into the conference room, where he too wept. We spoke for a long time about what had happened at that bedside, about how all the penicillin in the world can’t substitute for understanding, and about how each person has only one chance to die, so it’s important to get it right the first time. He too eventually settled himself and observed that it was a most valuable experience.
As Friends, we choose our recorded ministers based mainly on their messages during meeting for worship. It’s also possible to understand ministry—like worship—as lifelong and continuous. Opportunities for ministry arise unexpectedly and are passed on to others in ways that we never imagine at the time. Perhaps you have concluded, on reading this story, that I was the minister. I would submit that Mildred, the woman who was dying, was the true minister, and that she ministered to us all and is still ministering. I have never forgotten her.
Mexican Day of the Dead
Paul Busby, NYYM Latin American Concerns resource person
Celebration! Joy and laughter. Grief and tears. Singing and praying. Holding one another tenderly as departed loved ones come to embrace those still living. Little children eating sugar skulls. This is a scene during the Day of the Dead, celebrated throughout Mexico and Central America.
The celebration and customs are inherited from the Aztec and Maya cultures. When the Spaniards Christianized the indigenous peoples, they tried to suppress the celebration, considering it pagan. What we see today is a syncretistic blend of indigenous and Catholic observance, celebrated on All Souls Day, November 1, and All Saints Day, November 2.
On these days the people exhibit an attitude that combines solemnity with joy, including elements of humor. On the Day of the Dead, the spirits of departed loved ones can return for a few hours to share with those still living and console them. On November 1, los angelitos (the little angels), children who have died, are honored as they come to celebrate with those who loved them—and still do. November 2 is the day when adults are commemorated.
This is all very different from the way we Quakers approach death; yet it resonates deeply with me. For some reason Spirit has granted me a Mexican heart and soul, and I am especially blessed to have been “adopted” wholeheartedly into a wonderful family in the city of Puebla. As a Friend, I believe that “worship” is not limited to the profound silence of meeting for worship, but includes all that enriches our lives and makes us better witnesses in the world. Thus, the Day of the Dead appeals to me on many levels.
Mexicans and Central Americans begin preparation for the Day of the Dead by preparing altares (altars) to honor those who have died. The altares may be very simple or may be elaborate, consisting of several tiers. They hold a photo or other representation of the person or persons, along with ofrendas (offerings) of food and drink. The altar and its surroundings feature marigolds, papel picado (paper with shapes cut into it), skeletons, skulls, and other traditional objects.
|Calaca skull, part of street exhibition, Mexico City|
|Photo by Paul Busby|
Always present are calacas, skulls or skeletons, often portrayed as dancing, playing music, and dressed in upper-class finery, as if at a fancy party. The calacas lend an air of festivity, emphasizing that the afterlife is joyful.
In 2003 I was part of a delegation to El Paso, Tex., and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, with the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition. The coalition’s Web site described the trip as “a journey toward understanding the peril of migrants and their families in search of a better life, the causes of economic injustice on both sides of the border, and the religious spirit that demands of us concern for the stranger in our midst and for humane treatment of all workers.”
Two major concerns of the delegation were the nearly 400 women who had been murdered in Ciudad Juárez during the previous years and the 2,600 immigrants who had died along the border in search of the “American dream.” (Murder of women continues in Ciudad Juárez. The number of victims is around 600 now. At least 18 were murdered in 2009. Immigrant deaths have risen to an estimated 5,600.)
On the Day of the Dead, our delegation visited the Mexico–U.S. border, where we attended a Roman Catholic mass at the border fence, celebrated by a Mexican priest on one side of the fence and a U.S. priest on the other. Spanish alternated with English as we remembered the “women of Juárez” and those who had died trying to cross this border. Some of us held crosses, each bearing the name of an immigrant who had died. My cross bore the name Trinidad Orozco Hernández. I don’t know who Trinidad was, but I remember her each year on the Day of the Dead.
What do I have, to leave behind?
Rochester Meeting’s Response to End-of-Life Issues
Karen Reixach, Rochester Meeting
Adult Education Series
In 2007 the Pastoral Care Committee responded to the number of people in the meeting community who face end-of-life issues in their own lives or in their families. A subcommittee—consisting of the director of the Isaiah House for the Dying; a hospice nurse at an inpatient hospice unit; a nurse who provides home healthcare; a pediatrician; and the clerk of Pastoral Care—developed a series of adult education programs with the hope of providing a vehicle for Friends to learn and to explore their feelings about the great mystery of dying and death.
Overview of the Series: Using a worship-sharing format, the Committee provided an overview of the topics in the series and invited Friends to share what is on their hearts.
Potluck: Tuesdays with Morrie:Pastoral Care arranged for a showing of the movie Tuesdays with Morrie, in which a writer visits a former professor who is becoming increasingly disabled by Lou Gehrig’s disease and knows he has a limited time left to live. The movie provides a jumping-off place for discussions from the perspective of the person who is dying and of the people who love that person.
PBS Second Opinion on End-of-Life Issues: The meeting screened a 30-minute video on end-of-life issues featuring a local hospice director, a patient dying of cancer, and a physician with expertise in palliative care, as well as other national experts on death and dying.
Crossroads 1: The Crossroads occurs when a patient/family are faced with a potential terminal illness and need to address such questions as:
- “Where does one begin” to sort through choices?
- “What questions need to be asked?”
- “How does one know it is time for end-of-life care?”
Using the overall scope of the stages of a terminal illness/progressive disease, this session helps in understanding how priorities, goals, and interventions gradually change as a progressive disease unfolds; in other words, the movement from “living while dying,” through “living while dying,” to “dying while living.”
Caregiver Support: This session explored What Caregivers Need to Know when providing care for a loved one with an advancing progressive illness. The importance of “care for the caregiver,” as well as tips for doing so, were included, emphasizing the middle stage of living with a progressive disease and clarifying why this stage of illness is marked by lots of interventions, tests, medications, some treatments, eating, movement, etc. The concept of Quality of Lifewas emphasized; or as hospice says, “We may not be able to add days to your life, but we hope to add life to your days.” We also include what cues indicate that a person is reaching the end stage of one’s disease.
Crossroads 2: This session focused on the final stage, The Process & Grace of Dying, noting the physical, psychosocial, and spiritual aspects of the dying process. The goal was to “normalize,” but not “minimize” the dying process. It described physical and mental changes as the dying time unfolds, as well as comfort measures to reduce suffering. A strong focus was on the spiritual component of the dying time. It is our belief that throughout this process, health and wellness could not reside in the body; not even could it be in the psychosocial aspects as the person seems to “fold in.” The spiritual aspect is the only place where health & wellness can reside. This is where the “Grace of Dying” is most experienced, and we spoke of “near death awareness,” as well as sharing stories.
Healthy Grieving: This session examined the grieving process, what helps and what impedes grieving, as well as some common challenges that face families and friends as they work through this important transition in their own lives.
Half-Day Retreat: The subcommittee offered a half-day retreat focused on the “nuts and bolts” of end-of-life care: advance directives, healthcare proxies, funerals, memorial meetings.
Meeting for Remembering: Each year Rochester Meeting holds a meeting for remembering for people who have lost loved ones. First scheduled on Good Friday, the meeting has been held on November 1 in recent years.
Worship Sharing for Caregivers: Our Pastoral Care Committee has an occasional worship sharing for caregivers that has been well received.
Pastoral Care Consultant: A member of the meeting who has decades of experience in hospice is available to the Committee and to members of the meeting facing end-of-life issues.
Form for Filing Information Helpful upon Death: The Pastoral Care Committee has in draft a one-page form that Friends may use to provide contact information, wishes for their memorial meeting, biographical information for possible inclusion in a memorial minute, and the like.
Thoughts from Aging Resources Consultation and Help
Anita Paul, Aging Resources Consultation and Help (ARCH)
Thoughts on Dying
At a recent ARCH (Aging Resources Consultation and Help) workshop most Friends said they’d like their death to be quick and unexpected, but the reality is that 73 percent of us will have a slow diminishment that results in needing increasing care, whether at home or elsewhere. This wish also speaks of at least a discomfort if not fear of death, but most people, given supportive end-of-life care, are at peace with dying and ready to let go. Death is not painful or feared and can be welcomed as an end of what has been a hard piece of work. Many experience some being coming for them in the weeks before death, a known or unknown person, or angel. This experience is such that the patient loses all fear of death and comes to long to be able to follow the being to the place they have come from.
We’ve also come to realize that Friends need to know more about hospice’s mission to provide physical, emotional, and spiritual care and comfort at the end of life. Long confused with merely being cancer care, hospice provides services to anyone deemed to be in the last six months of life. Several Friends have told stories of calling hospice in for only the last few days, missing the support offered to caregivers and families, as well as possibly better pain management for the patient.
Since most hospice care is usually in the home, the patient avoids the hospital death full of tubes and surrounded by machines that we all so dread. Also, when hospice has been a part of end-of-life care, they can certify a home death and the police won’t have to be called and an autopsy won’t have to be done. Hospice also appeals to Friends’ sense of simplicity and integrity in that it acknowledges the truth of the situation and stops intrusive and aggressive medical care when it is no longer extending living but prolonging dying.
Kendal at Hanover (New Hampshire) has pioneered what is being called “slow medicine” and fully engages the senior and/or the family in making medical decisions at the end of life, allowing the senior to decide whether they want aggressive treatment for an emergent medical issue. A man in his late 80s with dementia will likely choose not to have surgery for prostate cancer, which grows slowly in older men. A woman with advanced cancer may elect to treat pneumonia with antibiotics—or may not.
The slow diminishment of dying that most of us will experience presents an opportunity for an increased spiritual awareness. If we haven’t already, we now know we must ask for forgiveness, as well as forgiving; we can express gratitude and love to the widest possible circle of those who have touched our lives for the better. This time grant may come to feel like a gift as we focus on what our life has meant. We can pray with little interruption. One Friend had expressed regret that he had had only one direct experience of the Holy in his life, but in the last few months of his life that experience became frequent.
Remember, when Dylan Thomas wrote, “Do not go quietly into that good night; rage, rage against the dying of the light,” he was a very young man and unable to imagine what his father felt about the coming of death.
Thoughts on Burial
As we have done workshops across New York State we have encountered several Friends and attenders who are not familiar with the customary form of Quaker funerals in which burial is a private event attended by family and that a memorial meeting is held instead of a funeral and can be scheduled at the convenience of the family. Often the memorial meeting is several weeks or months later; also, more than one may be held to accommodate those living at a distance. Friends General Conference has a pamphlet describing Friends’ procedures. We also recommend Dealing Creatively with Death by Ernest Morgan. Written by a Quaker, it is frequently updated with new alternatives to traditional burials.
Friends are often surprised to learn that no state requires embalming, and vaults are only used for the convenience of cemeteries because they keep the ground from subsiding, making it easier to mow the grass, and also maintain the fiction that it is only grass. Many Friends choose not to be embalmed on learning that all caskets and vaults eventually leak the embalming chemicals into the ground and hence into the water table. Some funeral homes will agree to keep the body refrigerated until a brief period of viewing before burial. There are also some cemeteries that don’t require vaults. If the cemetery does require a vault, some vaults are open on the bottom to allow the natural processes to happen.
Alternative burial practices are becoming more common. They include green burials with no embalming, no casket, and no vault, in land reserved for conservation. Some states permit the body to be cared for at home, perhaps with the help of a “death midwife” who comes to the house to teach and assist the family in preparing the body for viewing at home or elsewhere. In states that require funeral directors to be involved in most or all of the steps for preparation and burial, there are some funeral directors who will allow the family to assist or who agree to oversee the family’s preparations. There are myriad ways to scatter ashes (see Web sites below; also read Grave Matters by Mark Harris.)
There are plans online for coffins, as well as kits, and some businesses that will prebuild the coffin of your choice. We heard of a young man who found great peace in building the coffin after the father’s death. The casket does not have to be purchased at the funeral home but can be bought online, even from Walmart, at great savings, and the funeral home must accept it.
Web sites to check: general guide for congregations and committees, www.undertakenwithlove.org; Funeral Consumers Alliance, with information about regulations in your state, www.funerals.org; natural burial information, www.beatree.com; search for death and dying to find information on green burials, regulations, and connections to other sites at www.lovetoknow.com; and a list of natural burial preserves in the U.S. at http://naturalburial.coop/USA.
Thoughts on Advance Directives
Everyone 18 and over needs an advance directive, but very few Friends have completed them all. Advance directives include a healthcare proxy, a living will, a power of attorney, and a will. Toward the end of life, a do not resuscitate (DNR) and a New York State form for Medical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (MOLST) is needed. (Connecticut and New Jersey do not have this as yet as far as we know.) So what are they?
A healthcare proxy allows a person to choose who they want to make decisions for medical care when the person is not able or no longer wants to. It also provides space to say exactly what those decisions would be. All three states in NYYM have one online. It allows you to make your choices and remain in control and avoids the Terry Schiavo nightmare of not knowing what she would want and who she wanted making those decisions. Parents will not necessarily be deferred to by doctors for an adult child (18 and over), especially if the parents are divorced and not in agreement.
Living wills also are tools to express your medical decisions, but they do no have the power of law behind them that a healthcare proxy does. They do give additional opportunity to be clear about your wishes. They can also be found online.
A power of attorney (POA) or a springing or durable POA, covers nonmedical decisions that may need to be made when you are no longer able—such things as paying the bills, choosing another facility, doing the taxes. New York State changed its POA as of September 2009. If you made one before that date, it is valid; after that date, make sure the form you get does not say "2000" in the lower left-hand corner of the last page. Aspringing POA goes into effect only when you can no longer take care of business yourself; a durable POA remains in effect when you are no longer able. Connecticut’s and New Jersey’s forms are online or may be purchased at a business supply store.
Wills are not magic: Doing one will not make you die, despite what many Friends have only half-jokingly told ARCH, and you know you need one. Children will need someone to care for them, if the parents are no longer able, and you want to be the person choosing, rather than having the decision made by the court or by a family argument. Wills can clearly make your wishes known about what to do with the stuff and the cash, and how and by whom that is decided, and thus prevent those ugly family fights that result in siblings’ becoming estranged. If you don’t have a will, two-thirds of your estate goes to your children and only one-third to your spouse, probably not what you want. The three previous items do not need a lawyer; a will does.
DNR and MOLST are forms that you want to complete toward the end of life. Your state’s do-not-resuscitate form is online. You will want to do it with your doctor. It prevents you from having your heart or lungs restarted when you no longer want that to happen. Remember, if you have a DNR and someone calls the paramedics they will, by law, resuscitate you. Ask the people who are likely to be with you just to hold your hand.
MOLST is a form you fill out with your doctor telling what treatment you do and do not want at the end of life, and the doctor signs and dates each section. Besides the value of having this conversation with your MD, you have put your doctor on notice, since MOLST can be enforced by law.
Once you have filled out all of these forms you will give a copy of each, except your will, to your family, your healthcare proxy, and all your doctors, and discuss what exactly your decisions are. Your lawyer keeps the original of your will. Do not keep any of these forms in the safety deposit box, which will be sealed at your death, preventing your loved ones from being able to get them for several weeks.
Getting to Jubilee is the free Advance Directives workshop that ARCH is offering to meetings in which we provide these forms, explain the issues involved, and do a whole lot more. Friends find this workshop to be actually enjoyable as well as informative, and not gloomy. To schedule a workshop for your meeting contact Barbara Spring at barbarakspring4 [at] msn.com or call 518-772-2290.
To Live before We Die
Paula M. Peterson, Peconic Bay Meeting
Beginning in 1990, I was fortunate enough to study with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her staff for a few years. At the time I was getting my master’s in social work at Stony Brook University on Long Island. I had decided that death and dying would be my area of expertise. What better person to learn from than Elisabeth, the most prominent authority on the subject?
Briefly, it was Elisabeth Kübler-Ross who took death and dying out of the closet. She began her career as a physician, became a psychiatrist, and finally found that her purpose in life was to help individuals understand the deeper meaning of death and dying. She truly understood what we all need—to break through our fear of dying and realize that life is a challenge, not a threat. One of her most important contributions was to teach that trust and developing a relationship with the patient based on empathy, wisdom, and an individuality of treatment were essential. In her early lectures at hospitals, she found that talking to dying patients helped medical students assuage their own fear of death, as well as paving the way for them to appreciate that a dying patient is a human being needing understanding and care.
After years of training in Elisabeth’s Externalization Process program, I was eventually asked to become a facilitator for her “Life, Loss, and Transition” workshops. I learned so much more than the didactic understanding of grieving, because we students facilitated one another as staff members watched and taught and held us in a very safe environment. It was this personal experience of being held and allowed to have emotive expression that has continued to help me resolve my losses and fear of dying. Living more fully in the present is an ongoing process that requires awareness. Facilitating others with their growth and transition has also contributed to my personal acceptance of death.
I worked at hospices for a period of time listening and talking to patients and their families. This was one of the most rewarding areas of death and dying I have ever encountered. It was humbling to be with families who opened their homes and hearts to me as they were going through one of the most difficult challenges in their lives. The dying are our teachers. I wanted to be a part of helping them live as full a life as they were physically able while allowing them to take care of their regrets before they died. It has been said that we die in dignity when we are surrounded by the love and care of family and friends. I believe that. Being with individuals as they take their last breath is most intimate.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said in Death: The Final Stage of Growth,
It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather our concern must be to live while we’re alive.…
Death is the key to the door of life. It is through accepting the finiteness of our individual existences that we are enabled to…devote each day of our lives—however long they may be—to growing as fully as we are able.
It is the denial of death that is partially responsible for people living empty, purposeless lives.
Doesn’t this mean that we need to live each day as if it were our last and that it is important what we contribute in life? We don’t have to be famous; we only have to truly live until we die.
I believe that, in part, Kübler-Ross was espousing what William Penn said in 1682 regarding life’s transition into death. He grapples with aspects of life after death and she tackles life and preparation for death. Both are suggesting letting go of the fear of death by living and loving now.
Taking some excerpts from Some Fruits of Solitude, William Penn said,
And this is the Comfort of the Good, that the Grave cannot hold them, and that they live as soon as they die. For Death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity. Death, then, being the Way and Condition of Life, we cannot love to live, if we cannot bear to die. They that love beyond the World, cannot be separated by it. Death cannot kill what never dies. Nor can Spirits ever be divided that love and live in the same Divine Principle, the Root and Record of their friendship. If Absence be not Death, neither is theirs.
No one has the definitive answer on what happens to us after death. I am certain of one thing: If we lived our life as Julie Bergman, a person noted in Three Cups of Tea, who donned a pendant saying, “I want to be thoroughly used up before I die,” we will have less angst for the endgame. We needn’t cry out in regret, “Oh, if only I had done this or that, or said this or that,” because we have lived our life to the fullest. This is all I can do, and I ask that you consider it too. Like Elisabeth, I want to be part of those who are willing to break the conspiracy of silence in our death-denying society.
Quaker Burial Ground
Nicole Bernheimer for the NYQM Cemetery Committee
The Quaker Burial Ground in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, dates from 1849, predates Prospect Park and is the only privately owned land within the park. At roughly 12 acres, it includes one of the highest points in Brooklyn, peacefully surrounded by woods. The trees provide ample shade, but on sunny days, the cemetery has many areas that are bright and sunlit. It is a remarkably tranquil place, and when there, walking on the paths or sitting for quiet reflection, one can be with nature and with deceased Friends and also hear the faraway sounds of children playing in the park fields, depending on the season and time of day.
|Quaker Burial Ground, Brooklyn|
|Photo by Nicole Bernheimer|
The Quaker Burial Ground is owned by the New York Quarterly Meeting (NYQM) and administered by the NYQM Cemetery Committee. The Cemetery Committee’s work is far ranging and includes setting cemetery policy, arranging for visitors, responding to emergencies, such as fallen trees or power issues, picking out readings to have available to Friends during burials, managing the maintenance and improvement of the property, coordinating volunteer work days, and organizing reservations for burial space. There are fair amounts of administrative duties and planning activities that occur at each monthly meeting. The committee members serve other Friends by helping with prearrangements, setting up memorial services, and offering friendship, comfort, and guidance for the funeral tasks that the bereaved may face.
Some of the important work the Cemetery Committee has been doing lately includes getting all of the reservation records in order. Over the more than 160-year history, records have been kept in various paper and electronic files. The Committee is working to consolidate and improve record keeping. In addition, the Cemetery Committee has begun putting together its 10-year plan for upkeep and improvements, in order to make sure that the cemetery remains a well-kept and -maintained asset for all NYQM to enjoy and a wonderful place to visit the graves of deceased Friends. Improvements include plantings and benches, road upkeep, and perimeter fence enhancements.
Recently, the Cemetery Committee saw the need to have more communication with the monthly meetings who share the cemetery: Brooklyn, Fifteenth Street, Flushing, Manhattan, Morningside, and Staten Island. In order to have improved communication with members and also to provide valuable, up-to-date, and readily accessible information to NYQM members, the Cemetery Committee is creating a Web site, which can be accessed off the main NYQM page at www.nyqm.org. The site is scheduled to go live in December 2009 and will provide information about everything from contact information to reserving a grave site, as well as helpful information for loved ones at the time of a member’s death.
The Cemetery Committee is also preparing an updated brochure, which, like the Web site, will have helpful information about what monument companies are familiar with the Quaker tradition of simplicity, and what paperwork is necessary for burials.
Cemetery Committee members can be resources to Friends during end-of-life planning or at the time of death; they check the Quaker cemetery phone line daily to see if they can provide assistance to Friends.
In addition, the Cemetery Committee has planned a series of visiting days when members can visit the cemetery. The Committee also schedules a fall and a spring cemetery work day when members of the NYQM, along with parents, students, and faculty from Brooklyn Friends School, Friends Seminary, and the Mary McDowell Center for Learning can join together for raking, planting, and cleanup. These opportunities allow for many parts of our NYQM community to come together in this peaceful and special place, work side by side, and get to know one another better while making the cemetery an even lovelier place. The Cemetery Committee also coordinates other events on occasions such as July Quarterly Meeting and meetings for worship, and a First Day school picnic at the close of the school year in June.
Cycle of Life: Lessons from Early Quakers
Barbara Spring, Aging Resources Consultation and Help (ARCH)
We are born, we live, and we die—such is the natural cycle of life. Sometimes this process is so physically focused that we are not alert to the highly spiritual dimension that can be present when a Friend is dying. Typically, early Quakers experienced death without much medical attention, and, in the midst of persecution, there was a strong zeal to define their faith. Death was not feared. It was seen as the pinnacle of one’s spiritual journey.
In our modern context, do we consciously face death and anticipate this final gift of life?
Lucy McIver, a Friend in Eugene, Oregon, wrote a Pendle Hill pamphlet, A Song of Death, Our Spiritual Birth: A Quaker Way of Dying, which documents the early Quaker experience along with contemporary experiences and defines the life that is available in our dying. McIver drew many testimonies from a series of small books printed in England from 1713 to 1740 entitled Piety Promoted, a Collection of Dying Sayings of Many of the People Called Quakers. Akin to our memorial minutes, but also very different, these short entries focus on the last words of the dying person and articulate the seeming excitement with which “the people called Quakers” dealt with their transition into death. The account of George Fox has these last words, “All is well, the Seed of God Reigns over all, and over death itself; and that tho’ I am weak in Body, yet the Power of the Lord is over all.…” The testimony of daily life is magnified at death and shared with all.
Not all of the early Quakers died quickly. So how were they able to keep the faith during their periods of diminishment? McIver quotes John Camm (1721), who provides illumination on how he used this time of consumption:
How great a Benefit do I enjoy, beyond many,
I have such a large time of Preparation for Death, being daily dying,
That I may live forever, with my God.…
My outward man daily wastes and moulders down,
And draws towards his Place and Center,
But my Inward man Revives
And Mounts upwards.
McIver quotes Hugh Barbour’s The Quakers, written in 1988, about the 17th-century experience:
A devout Quaker (lived) every day as if it were the last. Death was the climax to life: the period just before the end was supposed to reveal either the righteous prevailing and triumphant, or the wicked filled with fear and repenting. The dying person, neither fully part of this world nor yet joined to the next, could speak to those around with an authority possessed by no ordinary person. An entire household gathered in the death chamber to hear the final words of exhortation. Many visitors, including young children, would gather around the dying individual who, in her closest relationship to God, would preach to them.
Does this scene reflect our contemporary Quaker experience? Do we speak of dying and death with a sense of anticipation? Do we listen closely to the spiritual journey of others that might enlighten our own soul? Can we move beyond asking about our Friends’ physical condition and ask about the transformative energy of God as they move close to death? Dare we ask to be ministered to by those who are moving close to the birthing of spirit, the final fruit, the pinnacle of faith?
Individuals, families, and meetings have a wonderful opportunity to embrace a spiritual approach to death. We can encourage and support one another to stay connected to that which enlivens us spiritually, for example, worship, prayer, music, poetry reminiscence of God’s presence, therapeutic touch, art, nature—all that feeds the soul. As we care for our daily life, we move closer to our Creator and the natural cycle of life.
Presence with the Grieving
Kathy Slattery, Orchard Park Meeting
The chaplain for the Developmental Disabilities Services Office with whom I worked told the story of the distraught father, a physician, after the funeral for his son. The father insisted on taking the chaplain out for coffee after the funeral, and they sat and talked for hours over many cups of coffee. The father kept asking, “Why would God give me a child so disabled, whom even I as a doctor couldn’t help?” He recounted how the infant had been seen by the best neonatologists, his colleagues. They all advised that the boy, who would never walk or talk and had many other disabilities, be placed in an institution where a team of professionals could provide for his needs.
At the funeral, the doctor could see that the staff who had cared for his son knew him so well—they talked about what made him smile, what music he liked, his mischievous side. He grieved that he did not know his son as well as his caregivers did. But the burning question was repeated, “Why did God give me a son I could not help?”
Almost out of desperation, the chaplain asked; “Are you a good doctor? Do you think you’re a good doctor?” The father was startled by the question, but answered, “Yes, I think I’m a good doctor.” And the chaplain asked, “Do you think that you might be a better doctor because you have a son who is so disabled?”
The doctor pounded his fist on the table emphatically. “Yes, yes, that’s it!” And so it was that the father had the insight that God had given him a son with such severe disabilities that he could not be cared for at home—and that had made him a better, more compassionate doctor.
Grief is often an experience that has us questioning what has had meaning, value, and purpose in our lives and the lives of those we love. The same questions, though perhaps in different words, are often on the minds and hearts of those who are dying. How can we be present to those in grief, or grieving the end of their own lives?
The most important lesson for us to learn in order to be present with the bereaved is that our job is not to do, but to be. Death is not something we can fix, so a problem-solving approach isn’t very helpful, especially on a spiritual level. And others, such as hospice staff, social workers, and funeral directors, are better trained and equipped to work with families on practical issues. So grief ministry is more a ministry of presence—of showing up—and of listening.
We have to acknowledge that not all of us can be present with pain. Our discomfort shows itself in wanting to increase the medication, call in another specialist, or actively “do something” to make it better. What can we do when nothing can make it better—or when it is the dying person’s own desire to have no more pain medication, so as to be fully present to the experience of dying? We have to remind ourselves that this experience of being with dying, of being with grief, is not about us; it’s about the individual or family that’s experiencing it.
Being with persons at the end of their lives, or with their bereaved families, is to witness many changes. In accompanying the dying, we might witness the ways that hope changes for them, and to point out the ways that surprisingly, hope still shows up. Or to encourage families and loved ones to use the time we have, to take care of the most important things that need to be said: I love you; I forgive you; Do you forgive me? Thank you; and Goodbye. And to voice their fears, as fear can hold us back. Whatever the circumstances, the ministry of presence with the grieving supports persons in writing their own script, doing it their own way; it honors their individual processes. Grief is unique for each individual and each individual’s losses. There’s no “right way” to do it, no formula, no timetable. It’s an organic, cyclical process rather than a linear progression. Each memorial service, each celebration of life can also be dynamic, and uniquely the person’s who has died. One memorable celebration included singing “On Top of Spaghetti”—because it was so reminiscent of the individual who sang it before lunch every day of her life.
If we can keep our minds and hearts clear and our spirit grounded, we might witness amazing ways to express creativity, growth, forgiveness, gratitude, and joy, even in the midst of grief and loss. For us as witnesses, we are blessed to see how God is revealed in person’s lives and in their deaths. And we might understand that being present with others’ death and grieving changes our concept of death; and that it may actually be healing by other means.
Kathy Slattery is Grief Response Team coordinator, Western New York Developmental Disabilities Services Office Chaplaincy.
We Shall Know Fully
Alice Houghtaling, Schenectady Meeting
This year, working as a resident chaplain at a local hospital, I have been with a lot of patients, family members, and staff as the dying process is happening and when death has occurred. I have kept vigil with families as persons of all ages, from premature babies to great grandparents, die. I am always awed by the vanishing of the spark of Life as it departs at the moment of death, taking with it—I do believe the essence of the person that spark inhabited. Amazing!…and Holy.
A few years ago in February, after the death of his wife in an accident the previous December, my beloved father-in-law died of prostate cancer. His three adult children and their spouses provided round-the-clock care for two and half weeks as he completed his dying process. Dad had no desire to continue to live in this world. His grief and his loss, his pain on all levels—emotional, physical, loss of personal dignity—was very profound. Our world shrank to providing care for him and for each other, and our conversations reflected the most basic common needs of caring, compassion, and communication.
Dad made a couple of statements that spoke to what he was thinking, regarding his relationship with the Divine. The first he said to his oldest grandchild, our son Paul. Dad said that he was not afraid to die but that he was intensely curious. The second he said in general as a meeting with the hospice social worker was breaking up. He said that he hoped that God would approve of the way he had lived his life. Dad seemed to take his resurrection with assurance, as he took with assurance that he would know his loved ones who had gone on before him, and be known by them. He took for granted that all that belonged to him—his identity, his memories, his mind, his sense of humor—would still be a part what would come next. He hoped that God would judge him approvingly—that, he did not take for granted. The night before this comment, we had watched, as a family, some old home movies about Dad’s early teens in the high Sierras learning to ski with his Boy Scout troop. He was 14 years old in those pictures. The next day, I had the opportunity to ask my father-in-law what he, as an 84-year-old man, had learned in his years about loving that the 14-year-old boy whom we saw in the movies the previous night didn’t know. I asked that question not to get an answer but to encourage Dad’s confidence and trust in God’s loving mercy and the abiding presence of the Spirit, and that his hope of being well received by his Creator was well founded.
Then, too, maybe Dad left us a gift as well. Does not the fact that mortal beings are created to be insatiably curious, to have a distaste of boredom and an eye for adventure, suggest that perhaps death is but a doorway beckoning one onward into a greater knowing? As the Apostle Paul said:
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)
This quote rings as much of curiosity and adventure as it does of hope and faith! Yet, while curiosity and adventure are instinctive, hope and faith, with their roots in the human/divine relationship, are made stronger by confronting our earthly insecurities and uncertainties and by being willing to believe more than we can actually prove. The process of dying and the moment of death are exactly such areas of human experience where hope and faith can be made stronger.
This past summer, I had a first intimate experience of my own mortality. I was quite surprised to find myself experiencing a mild heart attack. There was no pain, but I was incredibly weak. As I was being hurried through the corridor between the emergency room and the catheter lab, I found myself very aware and willing to utterly relax into a prayer practice I keep on “what it feels like to trust in a Power outside of myself” to remind myself that it is the Spirit that holds me every day. Several days later, I said to my husband: “I need to say this to you so that you hear it clearly from me. Should this happen again with more devastating severity, know that my first desire is to stay here with you. But if that is not possible, know that I go forward toward God with trust and joy” (and a little curiosity!).
Alice Houghtaling is resident chaplain at Albany Medical Center and NYYM representative to the N.Y.State Council of Churches Board of Chaplaincy.
Letter to the Editor
NOTE: Letters to the editor are presented when space is available. Letters raise and explore topics of concern to NYYM Friends. As in any Quaker forum, views here are uncensored, should be expressed briefly and gently, and may discomfort some Friends. The Communications Committee welcomes unsolicited manuscripts of opinion or reporting and will publish material that seems provocative and timely.
To the editor:
I applaud Tom Rothschild’s suggestion (Spark, Nov. 2009), in his “Considering Silver Bay” article, to ask for donations to help those with financial limitations afford the cost of attending Summer Sessions at Silver Bay. If asked, people might also be motivated to make a donation to help offset the cost of JYM. Tom’s suggestion was to ask for $25 per person. How many people would agree that an extra $25, to help pay the cost of a week’s worth of morning childcare, is a good deal? Raising funds could be as simple as adding a line for donations to the NYYM registration form.
I attended Fall Sessions, where it was announced that we are not prepared to shorten our time at Silver Bay or go elsewhere, at this time. I almost leapt/wept for joy! I also stood to speak. Instead of the long speech I had prepared, I spoke about the 600-plus Quakers and Lutherans attending SB back in the 70s, each competing for the largest conference of the summer. Today, the Lutheran conference has dropped to 200, while our attendance remains strong at 600 or more. Clearly, holding Summer Sessions at Silver Bay speaks to the Quaker community and in spite of all the challenges we face getting there, financial, distance, time off from work, etc., Quakers want to go to SB, for all six days. So let’s keep going!
Finding cheaper accommodations has already been done, as evidenced by the cost of Fall Sessions. Yet, in spite of this dramatically less expensive opportunity, fewer than 200 people typically attend Fall Sessions. Instead of spending precious time finding a cheaper location, let’s put that effort into both reducing the expense of SB and raising funds to help reach more people. See you at Silver Bay!
Carol Mallison, Ithaca Meeting
Meeting for Discernment: What’s Next?
February 20, 2010
9:00 A.M. until5:00 P.M.
Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.
—Isaac Penington, 1667
The next gathering of the Meetings for Discernment will take place at the Purchase Friends meetinghouse on Saturday, February 20, from 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M., hosted by Purchase Quarterly Meeting. (Alternate date: Saturday, March 6, 2010, at same time & place.) This day-long meeting will provide an opportunity for Friends to hear what is vital in the Life of the meetings and worship groups that make up NYYM, to hold what we learn in our hearts, and to come to a deeper and fuller sense of the movements of the Spirit in our Yearly Meeting. It will be a time for Friends to prayerfully consider what we can learn of Love and Truth from that which arises in our gathered worship. All Friends are welcome.
While we remain open to what may arise, we see this Meeting for Discernment as being a time for us to consider, in particular, the nature of our meetings and worship groups as active faith communities.
Our faith unites the historic beliefs of its Christian foundation with the corporate and individual search for the experience of God for today. This faith draws us into a community that emphasizes the integration of worship and work, faith and practice, in which we strengthen and challenge each other. Through this fellowship God’s love and power can work towards the healing of the world.
—NYYM Faith and Practice, pp. 10–11
What do you cherish and what do you yearn for in your meeting as a faith community?
In a true community we will not choose our companions, for our choices are so often limited by self-serving motives. Instead, our companions will be given to us by grace. Often they will be persons who will upset our settled view of self and world. In fact, we might define true community as the place where the person you least want to live with always lives! —Parker J. Palmer, 1977
Do these words reflect your experience?
What is required from us in order for us to reach wholeness and vitality as a faith community?
What discipline? What action?
Your prompt registration will facilitate our planning. To register for day attendance, train pick-up, and for hospitality and/or childcare, please complete the registration form at www.nyym.org/events/m4d10-reg.rtf and either save it and attach it to an e-mail to dnbwood [at] ol.com or send it by postal mail to Deb Wood, whose address is on the form, before February 5. Do not mail it to the meetinghouse or to the Yearly Meeting office. A registration fee of $10 per person, to be paid on-site, will help defray the cost of childcare, a simple lunch, and other necessities. For information about the Meeting for Discernment and regarding financial assistance for travel, as well as information about nearby motels, contact Janet Hough: janet.hough [at] verizon.net or 914-769-6885.
The Purchase Friends meetinghouse is at Purchase & Lake Streets in Purchase, N.Y. 10570. For directions, go to purchasemeeting.org. Winter weather advisory: If the weather seems questionable, please check your e-mail and/or the Yearly Meeting Web site, www.nyym.org, on Friday the 19th, or call the Purchase Friends meetinghouse: 914-946-0206.
2010 Summer Sessions
Adam Stephan Gubar—Montclair
Madeleine Keeley Klemek—Easton
Correction: Beckett Thomas Bradshaw—Chatham-Summit
Carol Coulthurst to Rahway & Plainfield from Somerset Hills
Lawrence Coulthurst Jr. to Rahway & Plainfield from Somerset Hills
Edd Fenner to Morningside from Fifteenth Street
Ella May Gelling to Rahway & Plainfield from Somerset Hills
Dorothy Hammerstrom to Rahway & Plainfield from Somerset Hills
Martha Robinson to Rahway & Plainfield from Somerset Hills
Siri Hammerstrom Vokes to Rahway & Plainfield from Somerset Hills
William Dick, member of Stamford-Greenwich, on November 16, 2009
Marjorie E. Vail, member of Rahway & Plainfield, on July 20, 2009
Ishi Buffam, member of Poplar Ridge, and Magdalena Wiedermann on July 26, 2009
Elizabeth Eunice Crownfield and John Jeremiah Edminster, members of Fifteenth Street, on June 27, 2009, under the care of Fifteenth Street Meeting
Lydia Benton Simkin, born on October 5, 2009, to Samuel Simkin, member of Poplar Ridge, and Claire Benton