This blog post started as a paper for my death, dying and Christian funerals class and it may not be how I intended it to be, and I think it turned into more of a testimony of God’s love, grace, guidance, and provision. I have learned through taking this course an immeasurable amount of knowledge, empathy, and compassion that I will bring to my future pastoral care and to my own life as I begin to experience losing loved ones and future members of my congregation. I hope someone else will read this an join Dr. Vanden Berg’s next class on this topic as it is rewarding in so many ways for many many reasons. I don’t want to give them all away so I will just share my own experiences with you. When I started this course, my intention was first to help me learn about death, dying, and funerals because I have never been with someone who is dying or been to a funeral, and frankly, I have run from these things out of fear—a topic we covered in our class through the lectures and readings and the second reason I took this course is that my mother is dying as we speak from terminal small cell carcinoma (lung cancer).
It’s strange how God works. As I chose this J-term course, I had hoped to learn the things I have described above, but at the time I thought my mom had more time. The week prior to this class, on Boxing Day, I found out cancer had spread to her liver and all palliative chemotherapy had been stopped. As I have read about others dying in the books by Billings and the articles, we also experienced losing our first family dog. During the last week of class, my teenage daughter found bedbugs in her room, and I had a very hard week of questioning my faith. Anger, tears, why me? Where are you, God? How can this happen right now?
We canceled my son’s first ever birthday party and a photo shoot with my mom that I likely won’t get back after having my home turned upside down with plastic bags and mountains of laundry because of bedbugs. Yet as I questioned my faith, I still had to finish this paper. So I met with Pastor Lisa, who is a member of our church and who also officiated our wedding, who had worked up until last year as a nursing home chaplain. I had asked her to do this interview with me along with a childhood best friend who I reconnected with over a year ago via Facebook Erin who is a vocal Christian and a Hospice nurse. As my faith wavered, God brought these two beautiful people into my life at exactly the right time, not just to give me help with this but to help me in more ways than I can ever thank them for.
The one thing from both of them I learned through our virtual talks about death and dying was foremost how to live a life with the qualities of empathy and compassion, mostly by opening our hearts to strangers, those living and well like myself, and those aging and dying. How to open our hearts to life until the very last breath and be at peace when that breath is taken for the last time. For Pastor Lisa, she commented on a resident who just wanted her to be in the room; having someone there when they passed was enough; or when she had a resident who hadn’t been a good person and was estranged from her family, how after accepting Jesus, she only needed to hear “God loves you, he forgives you.” These words gave this woman the peace and love to let go and let God. Erin and Lisa both told me they have the expectation of death at their jobs that death is inevitable. It’s expected that these people will ultimately die, but that doesn’t mean we stop treating them like living human beings until their last breath is taken. I asked Erin what the difference was between working as a nurse and in palliative care. She said that when someone is in the hospital with a complex condition they are expected to live but when something goes wrong and they pass unexpectedly. The conversation is a lot different with family and the grief even for her is different because of the expectation of life and dying is different and has a different impact emotionally.
We tend to leave the elderly, the weak, and the sick with strangers, nurses, and doctors; we leave our loved ones alone in the care of these people. I am sure glad that God has given these special people to the world, and I hope I am blessed with one of them when my time comes. I could write a whole other paper about the injustice that the ill, dying, or elderly face, but that’s not what God has put on my heart today.
Today is about learning how I want to live my life as if I were dying each day, to the fullest, and to be as grateful and forgiving as he is in heaven. Both Lisa and Erin are moms, and both have spoken about the emotional toll of these jobs. I asked Lisa why she chose to leave Chaplaincy, and she said it was time; she had done it for 10 years, and she took some time to discern and decided to take the spiritual direction that she had been attracted to in seminary. And God opened up a course and a path, and she said it all happened when a journal dropped open to a certain page and she knew she was supposed to do something more. She also said since she has left, there is a weight lifted off of her, and her children feel it, her husband feels it, and she is more present for her family. Her husband said well she was discerning that “You have done it for 10 years, now it’s time for someone else to do it for 10!” She said she missed the friendships and the work schedule but was excited to see where God was leading her now.
My friend Erin, on the other hand, loves her job as a hospice nurse. Not that the emotional toll is easy; it has its moments, which she talked about with me. But ultimately, she knows this is what she is supposed to do, and she feels like she is doing God’s work. Her explanation to her children is that she is getting people ready for Jesus. And I think that is beautiful, and she has a beautiful soul for leading people to God both spiritually and physically in their last moments by helping with their physical needs or spiritual or just being someone there in that moment. She prays with and for those who want the prayers and those who don’t, never pushing her beliefs but eager to help others turn to God in their last moments or months. Both my friends have hearts that bleed for the friendships they have made, but the empathy to be there for these people in those moments of uncertainty is most definitely God’s work.
From this and if or when my mom goes into hospice which is expected and planned. These conversations have helped me along with this class to learn to face my fear of death, to heal from my own miscarriages and the baggage that has left on me. During one of the worst weeks I have had in a long time praying with me and sharing their stories with me, I had two beautiful souls sent to me to share their hearts with me. To develop these new friendships or rekindle old ones, I needed the support of these wonderful people at the exact time in my life when God knew I needed it. In the storms, we sometimes can’t see clearly through to the other side, but there is another side.
Is there a heaven where God is? I don’t know what it looks like; maybe, as Erin has told her kids, it has roller coasters and our past loved one living life to the fullest. Or, as Lisa said, it’s a place of peace filled with the presence of our father who loves us.
After my interview with Lisa in the parking lot of my church, my secret sanctuary, I prayed to God after a week in which I almost thought about leaving seminary and shutting God out. How cruel to add this to my already overburdened plate. Yet this has sparked a fire inside of me to move; it has been roaring, and we have been praying for it, but now I am determined to move and find a home for us with peace, security, and grass. My miracle daughter Harper-Grace, middle name is “Eliana,” which is Hebrew for “God has answered,” and I have been praying for months for a new home, and we have now put our application into a place, and the person who is helping his uncle rent it is named Ismail, “heard by God.” I don’t know if we will move there, but maybe God was answering our prayers through this bug experience. Since first writing this as a paper we have since heard back and got the rental house. God is good!
Then, after my interview, I listened to a sermon, which I haven’t done in a long time. To which the pastor talked about God giving us what we need to handle things we just don’t always handle them right. which started me crying, then I listened to “Praise you through the storm,” which led to an ugly cry in my van in a dark, snowy parking lot. When that ended, I sent my mom an email forgiving her for “not being the mom I had expected her to be.” And that I love her very much, that I am at peace, and what’s to come and I will be OK; and that God is good and has provided me with everything I need; and that it’s ok for her to go, and I will miss and love her always. These are words of love and forgiveness that I wouldn’t have said at a photoshoot, a visit, by her bedside, or maybe never. When I was younger, we would leave letters when we were angry or full of emotions that needed to be expressed without fear of the other’s reaction, so I chose at that moment to send it by email and hope she reads it. Through these “interviews about death and my mom’s journey to heaven soon” came “beautiful prayers,” and their friendships, and this course has given me a way to be more loving and caring to all those around me in both life and death. How to believe in miracles again and in God’s word; how to have hope in the middle of sheol which i experienced this week and how to really cherish the times and people that God places in my life. I don’t think chaplaincy or hospice is where I am meant to be in God’s plan, but I do admire and respect those who are on that path. I also now have a better understanding of and appreciation for their role and what my role will be in the deaths of others in these situations I may be called too. But where we may fail as humans and how we understand or treat death and dying, I fully believe that Jesus will be there to bring me to Heaven like so many others, and I believe the peace of knowing this is what makes it easier for us to live in this world. It’s also the hope that, after we have dealt with a few traumas and tragedies in life when we go, we will be welcomed by our loved ones and by God on a new earth and a new heaven where love is at the center. I feel now that this is why people like Lisa and Erin are called to the work they do because God wants those who are with us when we pass to have the same love and heart as he does waiting for us on the other side.
The Throne in Heaven
After this, I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”