My heart weighed like a lead boulder in my body as I drove away from my doctor’s appointment — more questions, fewer answers; more frustration, less relief. It seemed in that moment that this is the consistency of life, that we do not understand it the more we seek to and that death is always nearer to us than we’d like to imagine.
There is a mystery in the marriage of life and death. Just as I thought about the sorrows and uncertainties we all face that are usually experienced alongside the joys and consolations, I looked up at the midday sky. The clouds behind me spoke of an impending storm as thunder distantly rumbled; they were angry and gray and foreboding.
Ahead of me, they seemed to soar with effervescent joy. Interestingly, the storm clouds and the cumulus clouds came together in a tidy row. They were not set apart from one another. It was as if the sky signal meant to say, “We exist together. We operate together — the dark and the light, the heaviness and the elation.”
What if we approached our deaths in this way – not out of fear, but with a sage impression that death and life are always around us and inside of us all the time? I revisited an old favorite by Henri Nouwen, Can You Drink the Cup? The first words my eyes caught were these:
There was a time when I said: ‘Next year I will finally have it together,’ or ‘When I grow more mature these moments of inner darkness will go,’ or ‘Age will diminish my emotional needs.’ But now I know that my sorrows are mine and will not leave me. In fact, I know they are very old and very deep sorrows and that no amount of positive thinking or optimism will make them less (p. 37).
The old adage tells us that we gain wisdom with age. Aging and maturity is viewed as the golden time of life, in which we finally gain stability and participate in the things we always wanted but never found the time to do. The reality is that, along with the gift of wisdom and insight, our sorrows also increase.
We suffer more as we approach death. Our bodies begin to fail us. Our minds, too. We lose our parents, our spouses, friends. The loss of mobility or autonomy create a sense of burdensomeness, because we don’t know how to live without fierce independence.
The world tells us to think positively. Often, people within the Church will say its religious equivalent, “Choose faith over fear.” It’s true that fear can paralyze and distance us from trusting in God. But trust does not come naturally, especially when we consider our mortality.
In youth, we were afraid of not being able to find a spouse or a job or money. In older age, we fear the permanent things — losing a limb because of cancer, discovering our spouse has Alzheimer’s, the lack of funds in our retirement accounts. But above these, we find ourselves filled with regret. And the guilt and shame accompanying all the things we wish we would’ve said or done — or not said or not done — flood our hearts.
It’s not so much that fear is absent when we think of death or begin to die. It’s more about how we can incorporate the truth that all our life was filled with both loss and gain, and the final trial of suffering will lead us to our eternal reward.
The greatest healing often takes place when we no longer feel isolated by our shame and guilt and discover that others often feel what we feel and think what we think and have the fears, apprehensions, and preoccupations we have (p. 65).
Ten years ago, my grandfather held my hand as the hospice nurse approached his bed. He turned to me and said, “I don’t want to die. I want to see another Christmas. I want to see my first great-grandchild.” (I was pregnant with our first baby at the time.) As his tears fell, I saw the regrets spill onto his cheeks, and I knew what many of them were without him verbalizing them.
As we share our fears of death, the fear weakens. It loses its grip, its power. Vulnerability is the gift-bearer of healing. It crumbles our stony hearts and allows us room to still love, to still live, in the midst of fear. And when we speak truth about the complexity of our feelings, we find strength in the community of people who receive them.
And that is where heaven greets us. God dwells in the clouds of darkness and of light in our lives, especially in the moment of our death.