“Sitting With Death” by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood – April 18, 2013
Community Good Friday Service
Earlier this week, a clergy colleague of mine lamented aloud “why is death so hard for people?” At first I thought she was joking. I mean, anyone who has ever had someone close to them die knows that the death of a loved one can be a whole range of things and that is it often hard for the person who is dying and those around them. I rarely meet people who are just excited and jazzed up about their ultimate demise. And when I do meet those people I am a little worried for them.
But I do get what my colleague was asking – “why is death so hard for people?” Because what I have noticed over the years is that death hits people in different ways. What you learn by watching people die is that dying is a lot like living. Some people do it better than others. There’s no “one right way” but you know a good death when you see it. There are definitely deaths that you watch and just think, “Yes. That’s how it’s done. I hope I can die like that some day.”
Part of what I expect my faith system and my community of faith to do is prepare me for two inevitable realities: First, people I love will die. And I will have to learn to survive without them. Second, I will die. I have to live day in and day out with that awareness without allowing it to paralyze me. If I am lucky, I will have some time to realize that death is approaching sooner rather than later and I will have the opportunity to be aware that my death is immanent.
One of the reasons death is so hard for people is that it is mostly hidden from us. Few of us die at home, surrounded by family and friends. Many of us have never seen a person die and some people make it into their adult years before they’ve even seen a deceased person’s body. When we do see bodies they are typically made up to look like they’re simply asleep. How many times have you heard someone say, “Oh, that looks just like her. She looks like she’s just sleeping,” over an open casket? We don’t like to talk about death much. We use euphemisms like “he passed away,” “she’s gone to a better place,” or “she’s no longer with us.” We do what we can to avoid the stark reality that death is inevitable even though it is one of the few things that we all have in common.
On a day like Good Friday, though, death is unavoidable. I’m guessing this is part of the reason most church-folk shy away from Good Friday. It’s uncomfortable to gather and read these gruesome texts full of blood and gore, hatred and cruelty. It’s a challenge to figure out how to teach these stories to our children. It’s a struggle to sit in the midst of Good Friday without rushing forward into Easter. And, let’s be honest, it would be a whole like easier just to skip it altogether.
But if we skip Good Friday or if we fail to take seriously the call to the severity of this day we miss an opportunity to sit with death. And I, for one, have decided that I never want to miss an opportunity to sit with death.
Once a month, the main governing board of our church, the Church Council, gathers to meet on Wednesday night. This past Wednesday we spent a healthy portion of our meeting shedding tears and telling stories about the way we’ve been forced to sit with death recently in our congregation. The deaths of several pivotal folks in our community have caused us to reflect on our own mortality. We cried as we remembered empty spaces in our pews. And we expressed anger at cancer, which has taken people from us long before we were ready to let them go. One of the themes that was lifted up by several wise ones around that table was just how important it is to allow ourselves to sit with death. And how thankful we are for having had the opportunity to watch loved ones die with grace, dignity, hope, and courage.
One of the things that is happening in our Passion Narratives is we get an opportunity to watch someone die “a good death.” It turns out that Jesus is our model, not only for how to live, but also for how to die.
In the passages we are hearing today, Jesus models a death that graceful, dignified, hope-filled, and courageous,
First, Jesus is not afraid to make his needs known. When he is thirsty, he says he is thirsty. I know, I know, this seems like a no-brainer. But I have watched people in excruciating pain near the ends of their lives try to suck it up because they don’t want to impose on people around them. That is hard to watch. And on the flip side, I have seen people who, like Jesus, are comfortable making their needs known. One of the more beautiful dying-times I’ve experienced was sitting with a woman and her brothers at Hospice House this past winter. Her brothers the better part of an hour just getting her comfortable. She would gently tell them, “I need a pillow here,” or they would ask, “Is it better if I prop your feet like this?” After she was finally settled comfortably in a chair, she stayed there for about 10 minutes and then asked to move back to the bed. She didn’t apologize. She didn’t shy away from expressing her needs. She just said, “I’d like to get back in bed now.” Her brothers were gentle, patient, and clearly very thankful that there were concrete things they could do to help.
When I die, I hope I can remember that it’s okay to make my needs known.
Second, Jesus is able to focus on those closest to him…even in the midst of his own death. To the thieves on the cross with him he offers the reassurance of eternal life. To his mother and his dear friend he offers relationship, making sure they know they will have each other to lean on in his absence. I have seen, time after time, that is it often so helpful for people who are actively dying to focus on the people around them that they love. One time I commented to a dying person that I was so impressed with how much they were thinking of their family. He replied, “Well, I guess I just realize that this is happening to me, but it’s happening to them, too. After all, I will only die once, true. But my kids will only lose their dad once, you know?” And I have watched grieving people, again and again, give thanks for dying people who offered care in tangible ways. Sometimes it’s the big stuff, like making sure you have a power of attorney or planning your own funeral. And sometimes it’s the little stuff like making sure your partner has all the passwords and account information they need. But it is always linked to offering reassurance and taking care of those who are closest to us.
I hope that when I die I can remember to pay attention to the others around me who are still living.
Third, Jesus is not afraid to run the whole gamut of human emotions. He does things that surprise us. He forgives his murderers. How’s that for astounding? And he admits that he feels abandoned by God. How’s that for shocking? Jesus Christ felt abandoned by God. Those that I have had the privilege of being with as they neared death have often run the gamut of emotions, too. I have been with people who have confessed to me that they felt angry at God, even though they did not believe God was causing the disease that was ravaging their bodies. I have been with people who have said, “You know, I just can’t even think about this any more. I know I’m dying, but I need a day where I can just stop thinking about it. Thinking about my death is boring me.” I have been with people who have admitted that they felt a little scared because they didn’t know what was coming next. And I’ve been with people who were a tiny bit excited about finally discovering what comes next. There is a whole range of emotions that come with dying.
I hope that when I die I can remember that it’s okay to feel all of them.
Finally, Jesus knew when it was over. He said, “It is finished” and then bowed his head and gave up his Spirit. One of the beautiful things about John’s text there is that Jesus is the actor. Even though Jesus has been beaten and crucified, he retains a bit of control. He is not a victim. It is almost as if he is choosing the moment of his death. He greets it with a simple statement of realization – “It is finished” – then he bows his head and gives up his Spirit. He is conquering death even as he dies. He greets it head-on and walks resolutely into the inevitable.
I hope and pray that when I die, I will know when it’s time to give up my own Spirit. And I hope that I will feel like it is a choice I am making for myself.
Granted, so much of death – like life – is beyond our control. I may spend years preparing myself to die only to have it happen in an instant. And clearly, we can’t all expect to be just like Jesus. He sets a standard in living and dying that can seem fairly unattainable at times.
But I do think that one of the gifts of this Holy day is that it presents an opportunity to sit with death. Whether you notice the same things I do about Jesus’s dying – whether you like what you see as you watch Jesus die….that doesn’t matter too much. What does matter is that we take this opportunity to sit with death. To look death in the eye and not shy away.
Because I believe sitting with death is a bit like an inoculation. If we take on each small opportunity to sit with death….the death of an acquaintance, the death of Jesus….then we are preparing ourselves to be ready when it’s time for the “big deaths” in our lives…our time to lose a life-partner, a parent, a child, a best friend, ourselves.
There are many gifts held out to us during Holy Week. Thank you, Jesus, for allowing us to sit with you in death as well as life. Amen.