Receiving a diagnosis that foreshadows the end of one’s life, people — both patients and those around them — often find the last leg of life’s journey radically different from anything they have experienced before.
Each person and their reactions are different. But I have a friend, for instance, who has become a lay expert on small cell folicular lymphoma (I tease him that he knows more than most internists, maybe even some oncologists). Others figure out every last detail of possible treatments. Or search for less orthodox alternatives.
And some don’t wish to focus on “their” disease at all. Instead, they try and look the other way and go on as much as they can like they did before. But their time is inevitably called upon by specialists and second opinions and various tests of their patience and equilibrium and medical procedures.
I have also been impressed by how many people decide to make some radical change in their lives, that they may live the remainder of their days differently. I’m thinking of a family wherein relatives who hadn’t spoken for years found a way back into relationship. There’s something about the reminder of our finitude that, at the least, can cause us to reconsider our priorities.
The question, asked or unspoken, is “how long do I have.” Actually, that’s always one of our questions, but most of our lives, we push it down and out of our consciousness. It seems there are many cases where everyone, including the one with the terminal diagnosis, ends up amazed at how patients outlive prognoses by months or even years. Of course, we also all know someone who was given two years, and died a few weeks later.
Life is a mystery — not in our hands finally– even as medical science and mental and spiritual attitude can sustain and transform the quality of even the end of our lives.
In the progression towards one’s last day, there often comes the point when treatments no longer promise any help, and everyone has to recognize that the time remaining is both limited and not to be extended. A parishioner said to me, on one of those days, “For me, it’s time that death becomes not just tolerable, but the easier option.”
At this point, hospice services can be a tremendous resource to a terminally ill person and their loved ones. Hospice care takes in the whole array of a dying patient’s needs so that s/he and loved ones can simply be with one another. Hospice’s ability to manage physical pain is also a great blessing — enabling people to be as present to one another as possible for the time remaining.
Usually, even for those who have decidedly looked “the other way,” mourning is finally unavoidable. Some people find room to begin grief work as soon as they get the diagnosis. But for many, hope requires a certain degree of denial, or at least throwing oneself towards the possibilities offered by treatment.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her work on death on dying spoke of this final stage of grief. She called it “acceptance,” where one is given to mourning, because there is nothing left to do except to wait and watch. Not everyone experiences it, but there can be a deep and transformative calm for those who do.
As a pastor, I have seen the end of so many lives, people I care for and serve that I hope that when my time comes, I may take it all as just one more, albeit the penultimate, stage of life.
By now, many of my readers are wondering with a growing sense of dread, “who got the bad news?” Or “who is failing now?”
But it’s not anyone’s situation that has gotten me thinking about death and end of life care. Rather, it’s the Hebrew Scripture passage for this coming Sunday.
In his career as a prophet, Jeremiah’s lot was to accompany a nation, an entire people whose days were numbered. They were suffering with a terminal sin-sickness. Their denial — not surprisingly– denied them their chance for healing or any other fate.
In Jeremiah 8:18 — 9:1, the narrative is at that point where the prophet — and God too — have to wrestle with the sad fact, the beloved patient was not going to make it:
Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has not the health of my poor people been restored?
Ultimately, Jeremiah must come to the sobering realization that no matter what he says or does as God’s prophet, Judah will continue to deny that anything is wrong. (Even more frigtening, can we imagine that some time even God is powerless before our denial?) Untreated, Judah’s illness becomes more and more pronounced, even if unacknowledged or recognized by those who were ill. There has come the day when there is nothing left to do, but mourn.
When there is nothing left but to grieve, what do we who love do?
Well, we love those who are suffering. We keep vigil with them. Stay present in their diminishing condition. We pray for their healing nonetheless. A healing that can only come on the other side of exile, from beyond the grave, after some unthinkable destruction.
It is a healing that is born in the very heart of God. where love can never let us go. A healing we know as that ‘Balm in Gilead’ the Negro Spiritual sang of. When we’re too sick to go on, too sick to change, still we have our hope in Jesus as a balm by which God can stay with us, and change us and save us.
See you in church,