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I’m a little bit locked up inside this week, trying to put into words some of the happenings in my heart. Not to sound overly gloomy, but I’ve been thinking a lot about death, and what a tearing, shredding, gouging, bleeding, gaping—LONELY—separation it is for everyone involved. None of us can escape losing those we love (or being the one lost); the only variable is time, which is neither guaranteed nor measurable.
The finality and devastation of the death of a deeply loved one is unfathomable. No one can bear it—it’s a lonely, empty, solitary journey that is only mildly lessened by time, but never erased. In the case of a lengthy illness, it is the same kind of lonely, painful journey for the one dying.
To be honest, I sometimes fear the valley of the shadow of death, more who it will take from me than when it will be my turn. I dread the pain of losing anyone else close to me, after knowing the pain of losing my mom. Even after 3.5 years, the yearning for her quick wit, gentle face, soothing back rubs, and mischievous grin (especially during a dog-eat-dog card game), and especially her determined, unconditional love, is as strong as ever. I still see her every cute little quality and quirk, as if I was just with her yesterday. I don’t want to miss anyone else like this e-v-e-r, but I know it’s going to happen, and with increasing odds the older I get.
Perhaps this topic is also on my heart because I have recently begun staring death in the face as a Hospice volunteer. Hospice is a holistic service to the actively dying and their families, serving the patient’s physical comfort, as well as the patient and family’s emotional and spiritual needs (if desired). If nothing else, my work with Hospice will be helping patients and families not feel as alone or fearful in the death process, a very important endeavor. This work is going to be a great experience for me because I think the death (birth?) process can be relationally beautiful in all its realness and rawness. But it is also a wake up call to the realization of the cold-hearted, relentless pursuit of death until, ready or not, it finally takes it’s prize.
Ironically, in the midst of my contemplation about death, just this week I finished the final chapter in a book I’ve been working through, Anam Cara (Soul Friend): A Book of Celtic Wisdom. In the last chapter entitled, “Death: The Horizon is in the Well,” John O’Donohue (incidentally, an Irish poet and philosopher who died at the young age of 52) writes:
There is a presence who walks the road of life with you. This presence accompanies your every moment. It shadows your every thought and feeling; it is always there with you. When you were born, it came out of the womb with you, but with the excitement at your arrival, nobody noticed it. Though this presence surrounds you, you may still be blind to its companionship. The name of this presence is death. We are wrong to think that death comes only at the end of life. Your physical death is but the completion of a process on which your secret companion has been working since your birth.
Later in the chapter, O’Donohue goes on to say,
Now as you are reading this, there are people all over the world who are being savagely visited by the unexpected. Things are, now, happening to them that will utterly disturb their lives forever.
The very night I read that, I had just witnessed “the unexpected” in action. At a time in life when other young people her age are going to college and thinking about marriage and families in their near futures, one of my young friends I’ve met since my recent move into the community was in the midst of a battle with her “constant companion.” This young friend has an aggressive form of cancer, and as expected, frequently battles the horrible effects of an intense chemo regimen, threatening her health and life almost weekly with obstacles and setbacks.
As I watched her face the latest, serious hurdle, I inwardly felt devastated, knowing that nobody can walk this inner path with her, or make it all better. The raging fears and desolate tears of the moment belong to her alone. But she is too young, and too vulnerable, and too human to carry this alone, so we all try to help shoulder the load. I haven’t known her that long, but I have been doing what I can, visiting her when possible and bringing her little gifts to brighten her day. Does it help? Maybe not right at the moment of intense fear of the unknown and momentary suffering, but undoubtedly in the course of life it will make a big difference to have had people there, walking her through the fearful crisis, being part of her story.
Why am I investing myself in such deep and personal battles of strangers, some people might ask? Is this even my place? Am I my brother’s keeper?
I must admit that it is too easy for me NOT to get involved, and a lot of the time I am guilty of neglecting or ignoring needs and hurts around me. But if not me, then who? In a world where people do not even know their next door neighbors, let alone know when their neighbor is in need, I have found that I have to be a bit deliberate and sometimes out of my comfort zone to discover how I might lessen suffering or put a smile on a sad face. I don’t have to solve world hunger, or even jump on board to solve all the social issues in my own town. All I have to do is look for a need right in front of me, and think about how I might make a difference.
I heard from my Florida friend this week, Alice Spicer, who is also being deliberate to meet a need she noticed in front of her. Through a series of events, she felt a very personal and impassioned call to begin raising money for writing workshops and then to produce a resulting publication for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Her desire is to give these stigmatized and forgotten members of society a voice to tell their stories, while restoring their perceived self-worth through their writing. The publication is called “Alzheimer Chronicles,” and the first publication will be entitled, “The Invisible Poets.” As one with a close relative in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, I think this is a beautiful and caring way for Alice to demonstrate love and a healing touch to a significant population of elderly people and their hurting loved ones.
Why is Alice investing herself in such deep and personal battles of strangers, some people might ask? Is this even her place to do so? Is she her brother’s keeper?
I learned a beautiful Hebrew expression this week that affirms the privilege, responsibility, and eventual outcome of investing in the pain and loss of others. According to Wikipedia (my improvements):
Tikkun olam (Hebrew: תיקון עולם) is a Hebrew phrase that means “repairing the world” (or “healing and restoring the world”) which suggests humanity’s shared responsibility (with the Creator) “to heal, repair and transform the world.” …Being that we share a partnership with God, humanity is instructed to take the steps towards improving the state of the world and helping others, which simultaneously brings more honor [attention] to God’s sovereignty [benevolent, loving character]. …The world is profoundly broken and can be fixed only by human activity [intervention].
Tikkun olam. Doing what I can to repair, heal, restore profoundly broken places.
If not me, then who? If not now, then when? Certainly you and I cannot prevent death or loss, but we can each make the lifelong journey of others a little less lonely, fearful, and devastating. We can become the solution and even the prevention to many premature deaths, just by caring a little more, investing a little more, doing what we can do in the lives of our neighbors—those right in front of us—out of our areas of personal gifts, abilities, and interests. It will look a little different for each of us, but we can make a difference and bring a bit of healing to the world. It all begins with love—loving people in the ways we want to be loved in our deepest time of need. For most of us, that means simply not having to be alone in our loss, our pain, and our death.
Am I my brother’s keeper? Yes. I am.