Learning to grieve in order to live well and die well
It seems until you are faced with something that is life threatening, such as a traumatic diagnosis of cancer, we as Westerners, and in particular, North American Westerners, live in a conditioned environment of cultural denial of decay and death. We have rendered living and dying as clinical realities where we make living the optimum preoccupation, and we continue to cheat and deny death, by offering people optimum choices as far as medical options and solutions to the problem of a “broken body” that is in decline, and unless there is intervention, usually of a radical nature, then you and I, as the people with “broken bodies” will end up dying. So the mindset of denial and suppression of death, is wired into the cultural psychology of living in this post-modern world, and medical science and its advancements are there to prolong your “existence” rather than let “life take its course.”
It has been over a year now, since I first discovered this lump in my chest. That little tiny lump that grew to the size of a cantaloupe which required a radical mastectomy and radiation therapy to deal with. I did not opt for the chemotherapy and I am so thankful that I did not. I have since the diagnosis on 6 October 2015 (yes it took until then, from 9 April to then, to get a diagnosis), have gone through much reflection and meditation about life, and my life in particular, and this who journey of what it means to be alive, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically and physically.
The society we live in is defined by “death phobia”
My wife Lori-Anne exposed me to a documentary of Stephen Jenkinson, Griefwalker. Jenkinson is a Canadian who lives in the Ottawa Valley, and has a divinity degree (MTS) from Harvard and a social work degree (MSW) from the University of Toronto. Stephen Jenkinson has created Orphan Wisdom to assist people. Lori-Anne and I watched this powerful National Film Board of Canada documentary by Tim Wilson that was filmed over a 12 year span. It is an amazing journey of the heart and spirit that all of us must embrace and journey through, and Stephen Jenkinson, is blunt, real and honest about life as journey and embracing all of it and living well, and learning to grieve properly and embrace death as part of living. He teaches and speaks through his Orphan Wisdom school.
Orphan Wisdom is a philosophical system invented and promoted by Stephen Jenkinson that believes what modern people “suffer from most is culture failure, amnesia of ancestry and deep family story, phantom or sham rites of passage, no instruction on how to live with each other or with the world around us or with our dead or with our history.” Before his 2010 founding of the Orphan Wisdom School, Jenkinson directed palliative care at Mount Sinai Hospital of Toronto. Orphan Wisdom’s teachings push against “‘death phobia’ and ‘grief illiteracy'” to promote acceptance of death well before death in order to “participate emotionally in their deaths as they participate in other big life events”
After watching this documentary and a video presentation that Jenkinson gave in the United States, I have come to that place where what I have been processing over the year, is all the more important for me now.
Whether we like it or not we are living on borrowed time
Our culture lives in complete denial of death. We are a “throw away “society that has expiration dates on food, and expiration dates on manufactured goods. You end up having new iPhones, iPads, MacBook Pros, and all the rest. The companies know that something “old”, even if it is less than a year old, is still “old” and worthy of an upgrade. We have even accepted an artificial expiration date for electronic products and automobiles and boats and motorcycles. Everything created and manufactured in our contemporary society has an “expiration date.” But, for whatever reason, the members of this society have a difficult time with the “human expiry date,” the date, the day that our life, our human condition comes to a conclusion, and we expire and are no longer physical living beings. We exhale our last breath and we are translated from this life to the next life. Our culture is fixated with a denial of this reality.
You and I are living on borrowed time. From the very first breath we inhale and exhale, we start the dying process. Our culture, and contemporary society, perhaps more than any previous generation is absolutely fixated with the denial of decline, dying, death and decay.
My brother had a European wake
My brother, Paul, he died at age 2 and half. I was five. It was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. I can still see Paul’s body laid out on the dining room table. The table had been covered with a white sheet, a brand new sheet. The ladies from the church were a mix of Gypsies and Franco-German Alsatians. My parents had been church planters in St-Die. My parents had been there barely a year in that city. We had moved from Dijon to eastern France, next door to what was then West Germany and Switzerland. Paul was a precocious child, full of life and bubbly and loved to be read to. Both my Mom and I read to Paul and played with him. He was my beloved blond haired blue eyed pal. I loved him and he loved me. Paul was struck with appendicitis, and was rushed to the hospital, and it was too late. His appendix burst and he died on the operating table. It shattered my family and it broke all of our hearts. The city was also in shock with his passing.
Here we were, the ladies of the church all gathering in that dining room of the house of the matriarch of the church. It was all so eerie at one level but so filled with quiet grief and sadness, with tears not in short supply. Some mothers wailed, and some quietly wept and consoled each other. My mother and Mrs. Lempreur bathed my brother’s body, and dried his body, and applied oil to his body, and were very loving and gentle in preparing his body for burial. It was somewhat surreal, but the grieving that was taking place was very real and it was therapeutic for many of the people. I had to be held back by five people because I wanted to hold Paul and I was just getting in the way.
My father came and went, and he prepared himself for the funeral as he was going to facilitate and speak at the funeral of his own son. Having had to bury my own child, I still don’t know how he did that. But he did. My mother was subdued and shut down and there were really not many tears from my mother. The shock of Paul’s death was so impactful that she was emotionally vacant. She was mechanical in what she was doing. Everyone was concerned for her, because she was pregnant with my sister, and this funeral was in August. My sister was due at the end of October. So everyone was trying to keep my mother comfortable and calm.
I don’t remember really grieving, although I knew from all the Bible stories I knew that death was not the end. I even remember telling my father that I wanted to go to Heaven and visit Paul. All that did was make people cry. What do you expect from a five year old that believes in eternal life and believes people go to be with God when they die? This was just the beginning of my own journey with grief and sorrow. I would eventually have to deal with my daughter Carragh being diagnosed with cancer and her eventual death from the disease seven years later.
I have had to learn to grieve the loss of relationship even with my family of origin, and the severing of family relationships, for all kinds of reasons, some of which many would find to be absurd. But the reality it, relationships break, and pain and sorrow become a reality that most people have to deal with, try to cope with and try to manage life through. I lost my father, of whom I was estranged for several years, when he died from a massive heart attack. I had to grieve his passing, and grieve at the loss of family and belonging. Carragh relapsed and passed away eleven months after my Dad died. Losing Carragh was traumatic to Lori-Anne and her grieving took a toll on her for over a year. Our girls, Caitlin and Erinn seemed to adapt to loss the same way children seem to adapt. We took our girls out of regular school and they were homeschooled by Lori-Anne all the way through the high school years. This whole time of bonding and belonging for our family was therapeutic and helped us walk through grief and loss. It helped to cultivate an alternative view that contradicts the accepted view that dominates our society’s “death phobia” and denial of death and decay.
Over the years I have come to accept loss as part of life, but it is not enough
I have had friends die. In high school I had an acquaintance who committed suicide. It really impacted me at the time. He had it all going for him. He was a top student, on the student council, and he took a gun to his head. We did not even have grief counseling at the school at the time. We had one assembly where we all came together to remember and honour him, but that was it. There was no counseling, not even through the guidance office or the community health networks. We were in grade ten and left on our own to deal with that one.
My faith was an inquiring faith and a grounded one
From the earliest times of my life, from when I was a little boy, I was always a thinker, and was meditating and reflecting about life and the universe. I remember many times where even when I learned how to read, adults would come along and take the books from my hands and tell me to go outside to play with the boys. I read every time I could. I wrote poetry and stories. I drew pictures and talked with God through it all. I tried to understand God, my world and my place in the world. I have always been wired in this way. In many ways I am still that five year old child trying to understand my life and my place in this world.
Throughout my life, the framework for understanding my life was my faith. I understood all the sacred narratives of Christianity, from the creation, and the Adamic fall and the consequences of sin in the world and the need for a Redeemer, and the place of Jesus of Nazareth, and the Incarnate One who became the God Man to redeem humankind to God the Father. I always had a grid for this kind of narrative theology. The narratives deepened in their understanding and articulation but the stories of faith remained the same. The theological and philosophical underpinnings of it all matured as I matured as a young teen and as a man. The narratives remained, embossed and more beautiful with the passing of time, and still all filled with awe and mystery.
I have had to learn to be a feeler and to emotionally grow and mature in life
It has been my life journey in sorrow, disappointments, and pain, which has caused me to become more emotionally mature over the years. Being a thinker by default can be as crippling as those people who are total and completer feelers who let go of rational thought and just want to feel everything out. They seek experience over and above rational thought. Myself I could easily insulate myself in rational and reflective and meditative thought. I have little difficulty in doing that. I am equally able to let myself be “real” with others, to the point of coming across as arrogant and offensive, even though all I am trying to do is to be authentic and real with people.
I have learned in life that there is nothing guaranteed. There is no guarantee of happiness, or of success in business, or career. There is no guarantee of having a perfect, and healthy family or of a successfully and happy and productive marriage. There are no guarantees. Everything in life takes work, and it takes preparation, not just through education, but through wisdom and the practice of living. There is nothing greater than to be taught through the experience of others. We can learn the most difficult lessons in life through our own living, and faltering, and falling on our own faces when we attempt to live life wisely. However, the greatest wisdom that we can experience, is the collective wisdom of the past, that others have walked out before us and have made it possible to be mentored in the wisdom of a life well learned, well lived, through all the moments we experience along the journey of life that shapes and defines us as human beings. In this I am only beginning to understand. I feel so much like a newborn when it comes to all this. But I can do no less that to grow in wisdom as I learn to live and grieve and understand the important truth that I am going to die one day. There is no denial of that. I am going to die. I am also learning as I embrace this dying, that I can also learn and embrace the reality of becoming fully alive in the moments that make up my day.
As I process this living in the moment, and preparing for death, I get such mixed messages from the Evangelical Christian community.
I find it bizarre that many people I have come to know in the Evangelical church at large, over more than four decades as an adult, the only time the “church” talks about “death”, “grieving” and “dying” is when someone has already died, and within the context of the departed having left this world for the next world to come. Even that whole thing, is just a dialogue on the interpretations of biblical texts and are used to propagate the “Christian view of eternity and life with God.”
Why is it that Christians have difficulty talking about life, loss, grief and dying?
Why is it that Christians don’t talk about “loss”, “grief”, and “dying” as the natural processes of what it means to be human, and that we ought to be concerned with not only living well, but dying well as well? Why have Christians bought into the secular narrative of how to handle these things, by doing all we can to deny death, rather than embracing death as part of life and what it means to be fully alive?
Why are people even afraid to speak of “death” and what that means for them? Why are we as parents afraid to broach the subject with our children, be they teens or adults? Why are we spouses afraid to talk about dying with our own beloved spouses?
Why do Christians remain so clinical and theological rather human and engaged in life?
I am finding it more and more weird and odd, that death is so misunderstood by Christians, and they not only not comprehend death as being part of life, but Christians do not understand the gift of grieving.
I find myself praying often along these lines:
“O God help us. Help us. Let us come to that place of knowing You, knowing ourselves, knowing our finitude, knowing that we were born to die, and that we have nothing to fear in dying. Let us O Lord understand what Paul said, that it is more than a Bible verse, and it is so much more than a theological statement: “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Amen.”
We were born to die… Embrace that truth!
It is not the finality of death that is difficult for most us, for death comes to all of us. It is the process of dying, of grieving who we have thought we would always be, denying the life cycle that includes decline, dying, death and decay. We do not like the idea that we were born to die. Even the Bible says, we were all born to die. People of faith face it as well as those who do not proclaim to have any faith. We all die. It is the journey of life that began with our first breath, and from that point on, the process of living became the twin journey of dying. We were no sooner born, that we began that journey of development, that includes grow and maturity, and then decline, dying, death and decay. We just have never understood what it is to grieve properly, so that we can live fully, without fear, without regret. O to be fully alive all the way through life’s journey, even in grieving and in dying.
Peace. Be still. Be fully alive in your grief, in your sorrow, in your anxious moments. Peace is found, when you let it all go, and embrace that moment, the sacred moment of awe that is the gift of grieving and living.
Choosing to learn to grieve gives me the hope and desire to live fully and help others
I am finding myself invigorated with a renewed intentionality. I find myself embracing each morning with an attitude of deep gratitude that I have another day to live my life. I am cognizant of that truth. I only have today, and yet it may be my last day, but I have today to live. I cannot change yesterday, and I cannot do anything about tomorrow, or next month or next week for that matter.
All I can do about the future is to prepare myself and my loved ones for my eventual exit from this life on earth. In light of that I want my life to be a blessing to others and to help and assist others to see and understand the brevity and insecurities of life. We can only live life in the moments that make up our day, and the encounters we have with family, loved ones, and the people we work with. I can only try to make a difference in the immediate circumstance that unfold before me as I engage with people.
I can choose to take life as it happens in front of me, and respond in love and grace as it unfolds. I am finding myself thinking of death and dying more regularly now that I have experienced dealing with cancer. I am extra sensitive to what my body is telling me and what I do with my body. After all it is my body that will eventually die and my spirit will live on. But I want to remain as long as I can and be a blessing to my family, friends and the other people that I encounter in life.
In order to be prepared I have even moved from thinking of the elements of what I want for my funeral and have begun to actually plan it out. I want to de-clutter my life, by making arrangements for things that I should not burden my wife and children with. I am forcing myself to be become less attached to things, such as my precious books, and I am going to give some away to my children and sell some as well. I want to put in place those things that pertain to my death, so that the ones I love will not have to deal with grief and my death and all the “stuff” that made up my life. I want to get rid of the Egyptian Pharaoh mindset of gathering possessions with me to take to the afterlife. I want to remove clutter and make life simpler and richer, for those that I love and cherish.
None of us know how much time we have, so live!
As one who faces each day now, knowing that I will die, I want each day to be a good day, a day that I fully embrace as a gift from God for me. I want to grieve well, knowing that I will die. I want to live well knowing that each day is a gift for me. I want to be able to die well, knowing that my life is in God 24/7 and that I cannot ever be separated from Him or He from me. I know that I will one day be separated physically from my children and loved ones, but as Jesus said, at the day of the resurrection, I shall see them all again, all these people that I leave behind after my death, and it is all good. Living, experiencing pain and sorrow and loss, and grief are all a part of the human condition. Dying in the end is a gift, and it is a doorway to the next life. It is just that most of us have a hard time with the journey of decline, dying, death and decay. It’s OK. We are all going through it. As they say, “No one gets out alive!”
~ Samuel M Buick