“Some Things Should Not Go Unsaid”
A Sermon in Two Parts
Revs. John Gibbons & Megan Lynes
Delivered on November 15, 2015
Thoughts to Ponder at the Beginning:
“There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realize that is not how it will be at all.
You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses.
Things that were there and are no longer.
And you realize, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps,
though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.”
—HELEN MACDONALD, from H is for Hawk
“ . . . to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”
by Meredith McCulloch
(Published New York Times, op. ed., April 15, 1998)
ONE MOTHER’S FAREWELL ( NYT headline, I called it The Dead Parents File)
As one who lives by lists and calendars, I knew that even death needs a plan. I’d read the advice that crops up regularly in books and newspapers about preparation for the end of life and its importance for the heirs and “the estate.” My estate is of little consequence, but I had seen how the administration of death becomes an added burden to those in grief. I wanted to spare my children as much of that as possible. The time had come to bite the bullet and organize for my own demise.
For now, at least, I know the nooks and crannies around the house where all the important stuff is stuffed, but the kids would never guess. Any attempts to tell them made it clear that this was not a subject they were eager to discuss. Their eyes wandered aimlessly away, followed by a pregnant pause, and then an abrupt change of subject. Sure their Dad and I are hovering around sixty, and the statistics would give us 15 or 20 more years, but still in their twenties and early thirties, they clearly were not ready for this discussion. The contemplation of our deaths was too dire a subject.
So I decided my sole resolution for 1998 would be to put all the information my kids would need to know, when their Dad and I depart this earthly bode, in one place. The PC offered the solution. I would enter all the essential data on the family computer and provide a helpful start for dealing with their parents’ “estate.” So I happily composed a spreadsheet with lists of assets, – the house, savings accounts, IRAs and 401Ks, complete with account numbers and 1-800 telephone contacts.. I built a little database on “where to find” important documents such as the safe deposit box key, the photocopy of our wills, the deed to the house, records for insurance, and medical proxies. I was fully confident that directions like “look in the metal box in a green folder between the passports and the pre-1980 car info” would bail them out. I wrote up memorial service requests, suggesting hymns and readings. Dad wants the Robbie Burns poem. I want mine to end with the triumphal march from Star Wars. (Note: Find out if you need John Williams’ permission.)
Finally all the documents were complete. I finished with a sense of deep satisfaction. I had done the right thing, prepared for the future, organized to help my kids through the tough business that accompanies the inevitable grief when parents die. The “ant” side of my personality had triumphed over the “grasshopper” side, at least this once. The computer had solved my problem.
Now time to pull it all together. I clicked on New Folder and dragged and dropped each document into the folder. Finally, I slid my cursor over to designate a name. My brain froze! What to call the file? I must make it clear what it was, but not herald the coming of the grim reaper. After all, the children, and now grandchildren, would run across it frequently on the computer.
My first thought, “DeadParentsFile,” was clear, but much too direct. Parentes Mortui might be a bit more subtle, but it’s doubtful that their single year of Latin would suffice. “If I should die” felt a little too whimsical and carried an element of fantasy. As a librarian, I toyed with 346.052 (Death –United States –Handbooks, manuals, etc.,) but I knew my kids weren’t that up on the Dewey Decimal. Terms like “Kicked-the Bucket”, “Passed On,” and R.I.P. were too dated. But I was not ready for the truly contemporary – XparentFiles.
Finally, I realized that something was missing from the folder, and then the choice of name became clear. I had created the important files, but not the important message. I had given them the facts, but not the truth.
I added a letter to each of my children. I told them life has been sweet and that death is right and inevitable. I wrote that I love them and how proud I am of them. I told them they are good people, and I am sure they’ll be OK. I reminded them one last time of Mom’s maxims – “Wear your seat belt.” and “Don’t forget to vote!” Now, at last, I move the cursor to the New Folder name field once more and enter its name: GoodGrief!
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND—World Health Organization officials expressed disappointment Monday at the group’s finding that, despite the enormous efforts of doctors, rescue workers and other medical professionals worldwide, the global death rate remains constant at 100 percent.
Death rates since 1992
Death, a metabolic affliction causing total shutdown of all life functions, has long been considered humanity’s number one health concern. Responsible for 100 percent of all recorded fatalities worldwide, the condition has no cure.
“I was really hoping, what with all those new radiology treatments, rescue helicopters, aerobics TV shows and what have you, that we might at least make a dent in it this year,” WHO Director General Dr. Gernst Bladt said. “Unfortunately, it would appear that the death rate remains constant and total, as it has inviolably since the dawn of time.”
Many are suggesting that the high mortality rate represents a massive failure on the part of the planet’s health care workers.
“The inability of doctors and scientists to adequately address this issue of death is nothing less than a scandal,” concerned parent Marcia Gretto said. “Do you have any idea what a full-blown case of death looks like? Well, I do, and believe me, it’s not pretty. In prolonged cases, total decomposition of the corpse is the result.”
“What about the children?” the visibly moved Gretto added.
“At this early date, I don’t want to start making broad generalizations,” Citizens for Safety’s Robert Hemmlin said, “but it is beginning to seem possible that birth—as well as the subsequent life cycle that follows it—may be a serious safety risk for all those involved.”
Death, experts say, affects not only the dead, but the non-dead as well.
Death has long been considered humanity’s number one health concern. Responsible for 100 percent of all recorded fatalities worldwide, the condition has no cure.
“Those who suffer from death can be highly traumatized by it, often so severely that it kills them,” noted therapist Eli Wasserbaum said. “But it can also be very traumatic for the still-living who are left behind. The sudden cessation of metabolic activity characteristic of terminal cases of death often leaves the dead person in a position where they are unable to adequately provide for the emotional needs of their loved ones.”
In the most serious cases of death, Wasserbaum explained, the trauma inflicted upon these still-living victims of death may continue throughout their entire lives, until their own deaths. “Thus,” Wasserbaum said, “the ‘vicious cycle’ of death trauma continues indefinitely.”
“Everybody talks about death,” Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) said, “but nobody seems to actually be doing anything about it. I propose we stop molly-coddling death, not to mention the multi-billion-dollar hospital, mortuary, funeral and burial industries that reap huge profits from it.”
Under Domenici’s new bill, all federal funds will be withheld from the medical industry until it “gets serious and starts cracking down on death.”
Consumer rights advocate and staunch anti-death activist Ralph Nader agreed with Domenici.
“Why should we continue to spend billions of dollars a year on a health care industry whose sole purpose is to prevent death, only to find, once again, that death awaits us all?” Nader said in an impassioned address to several suburban Californians.
“That’s called a zero percent return on our investment, and that’s not fair. It’s time the paying customer stood up to the HMOs and to the so-called ‘medical health professionals’ and said: ‘Enough is enough. I’m paying through the nose here, and I don’t want to die.'”
– – – – –
Part I – Rev. John Gibbons
Thank you, Meredith, for writing my part of this sermon. Thank you, satirical friends at The Onion, for lightening things up.
Megan, I don’t know how it went writing your part of this sermon, but I’m down to my closing couple of paragraphs!
If there’s a single thing that a religious community worth its salt must do, it is to counsel us to take time seriously. You remember my favorite poem by Ron Padgett: “That was fast!/Life I mean.” And another favorite poem: “One hundred years from now: All new people!”
At our child dedication ceremonies, we say, “Here in this church, you will learn to count the number of your days and to weigh their meaning.”
Taking time seriously is a lifelong project and this church year we are renewing our commitment to it. A small “End of Life Task Force,” led by Maureen Richichi, has already met several times.
In October, with Carleton-Willard, we co-sponsored a talk here by Dr. Angelo Volandes on the topic, “How Not to Die” – in other words, how to have the kind of death you want. There are choices!
Today we are one of more than 45 faith communities observing a “Conversation Sabbath,” and we can remember that our theologian James Luther Adams once said that in our tradition, “revelation most often happens in the act of conversation.” We are one of many congregations participating in what’s called The Conversation Project, initiated by writer Ellen Goodman and now directed by UU minister Rosemary Lloyd. Next Saturday, from 6:30-8:30 we’ll talk about “Death Over Dinner.” A simple dinner will be provided; all you have to do is show up (which Woody Allen said constitutes 80% of success). You may sign up during community hour.
Rosemary will also lead a workshop for us on January 24.
There’s a lot to talk about:
Medical interventions at the end of life – lots? some? none?
The right to die – (Josh and I attended a hearing at the State House a few weeks ago because aid-in-dying legislation is now being considered.)
We can talk about hospice care and funeral care (remember we’ve got alternative caskets stored in the Common Room closet!) Actually I’ve taken one out so today you can lie down and see how it fits! And here are some toe tags!
I’m a member of the Funeral Consumers Alliance and, if you want recommendations about funeral directors, talk with me. Talk with me if you want a health care proxy or have any other question or concern.
Even though Meredith said her estate wouldn’t amount to much, I am not ashamed to say that end-of-life planning may also include estate planning; and if this First Parish has been of some importance to you, it only makes sense for your generosity to continue after you’re gone. I’ve done this. You can too. Soon we’ll be announcing a First Parish Legacy Society to recognize those of us who have made this commitment.
The thing is that most of us think that all of this stuff is good in the abstract… but very few of us actually get around to doing anything about it. I still think that death may make an exception for me…but I am beginning to hedge my bet. Here’s what I suggest: Let’s do this thinking and this planning together…that’s the only way it’s gonna get done. Brothers and sister, we can do this together!
Sure there are forms to fill out and directives to leave, but just talking about how we feel may matter most. This is close to the bone for some us; and yet church, it seems to me – if we are worth our salt – must be a place where it is safe to be happy and sad, sometimes at the same time.
I’ll end with the old teaching story:
You see this goblet?” asks the meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”
Part II –
Rev. Megan Lynes
When death comes, writes the poet Mary Oliver,
When death comes, like the hungry bear in autumn,
…I don’t want to wonder if I’ve made of my life something particular and real…
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Mortality has something to teach us, if we will let it.
It’s a complicated teacher, full of lessons on spiritual maturity, control, letting go, meaning and love and loss. As difficult as these may seem, grappling with them leads us to insight and understanding the myriad blessings of this being mortal.
Of course there are jagged edges to this contemplation… few of us include in our spiritual practice intentional contemplation about our own death. As humans we practice living. Our bodies and minds are hard-wired to focus on that. I remember as a chaplain I once entered a room where a whole family had gathered around a loved one, who was said to be near death. Her daughters were whispering encouragements and what they thought was permission to die. Like Maureen did with her mom at the end, these daughters were saying, “It’s ok to go mom,” “Everything’s ok here,” “You can go home, any time you’re ready.” It was a very sweet moment. Except in this case, the mom, who had not opened her eyes in weeks, must have taken the euphemisms literally. Suddenly she sat bolt upright in bed. “Ok, I hear you! I’m ready. Give me my lipstick. Let’s go home.” We are practiced at living, not dying. Or as Woody Allen said: “I’m not afraid to die; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
It’s true. We really don’t want to talk about death. Of course, we think we should talk about it! 90% of Americans surveyed said it’s really important that we talk with our loved ones about our wishes for the kind of care we would like at end of life…Yet fewer than 30% of us have done it! What is in our way? Is our fear really so great? Do inherited superstitions hold so much sway?
I’m sure no one here has ever had the uncomfortable and not entirely rational thought that if we talk about dying, it might happen sooner….Maybe it feels depressing or just plain—awkward. What are you doing Saturday night? “Oh, Death Over Dinner.” There are, no doubt, barriers to having the kind of conversations that acknowledge the possibility that we may not always be in control. Most of these barriers are our own, we keep ourselves from having the kind of conversations we need because we don’t want to feel uncomfortable or make others uncomfortable. But it’s so healthy and useful to talk with people we love about how we want to die, or help someone we love have a conversation about their end of life care. There’s a great packet called the Conversation Starter Kit that is created by the Conversation Project, that you can download from the internet.
I am reminded so often it is children who help us face our feelings, and remind us that even if it’s painful to think about death, it is possible. When we can face our feelings, we can be more in charge of the process. As a chaplain I once spent a long night in a hospital waiting room with two kids Jazzy and Izzy, whose dad, Ira, was dying. They were afraid to see him because he looked so different than how they knew him. People had talked at them a lot about heaven and said that he’d be happy there. The whole concept of having no body anymore scared them. The idea that he’d be watching them all the time, invisibly scared them. People had talked at them, rather than listened to what they needed to figure out about death. There were a lot of concrete things these kids would need to get their minds around in the weeks, months and years after their dad was gone, but for now, here we all were in the hospital. This moment was the moment we were in. First things first.
I wanted very much for them to have a good goodbye, and I knew time was running out for Ira. It was two am, and nurses had increased Ira’s morphine. He looked more peaceful, but his mind was not at clear as it had been even hours earlier. I knew from previous conversations with him, that HE wanted them to have a good goodbye too. It was something he knew his daughters needed, and he had wondered how to make that possible before he died. It seemed that he was waiting for something to happen before he could allow his body to stop. I knew I couldn’t make a conversation happen with these six and eight year olds. They had only just met me, I was most likely to them yet another adult who wanted them to feel or do something in particular. I needed to slow myself down, physically and emotionally, and meet them where they were at. I didn’t know if they’d trust me, but just as we adults will do with the Conversation Project, I knew I needed to begin by listening. Everyone has something they need to figure out about dying, saying goodbye, grieving. The truth is we can start wherever we’re at.
The girls hadn’t brought toys to the hospital when they’d been woken from their beds, and the empty waiting area offered only mild blank walls. They were so alarmed at the way their dad looked that they preferred staying with me rather than going in to be with him. I knew something had to shift. They needed to feel in charge of something, and gain back a little control in the whirlwind of everyone else’s emotions. They needed their feet under them. We snuck down the empty corridor and grabbed armfuls of clean white sheets, as much as we could carry. Together we built a small fort, with walls and a roof draped over waiting room chairs, and we piled extra sheets on the floor. It was a nest of sorts, and it covered up the cold hard linoleum. Once inside, they told me about their after-school activities. It turned out they had been taking tap dance for a couple years now and were proud of it. “Oh show me!” I begged! Up they jumped. The floor was perfect for it. They had whole numbers memorized and the dances were elaborate and light hearted. They both sang the words, louder and louder, whirling about the room, regaining a sense of self and dignity amid the mess of their lives.
When we got back inside the fort, Izzy, the older sister said that on Friday was the Daddy Daughter dance at her school. It was very quiet. Then she said how every girl would bring her dad but her dad wouldn’t be there. “I’m mad at him,” she said. I nodded. “I told him not to die and he is!” I nodded. “I was going to show him my dance, but now I can’t!” I nodded. “Well, let’s show him now!” her younger sister said. I couldn’t have planned that if I tried. They hopped up, and set off, determined, down the hall, with me following behind. What ensued was a dance concert like no other. Two high pitched voices sang “You Are My Sunshine,” while four feet pattered across the floor. Ira’s lips trembled into a smile, and the girls kept at it a while longer, losing themselves in the fun of twirling and dancing. Tears poured down Ira’s cheeks.
“Why is daddy crying?” they asked. Their mom said he was crying because his love for them was so big, and he was sad to say goodbye. Somehow this made sense to them. They nodded. Izzy asked if he’d seen her dance because it was for him, in case he couldn’t come to the Daddy Daughter dance. He squeezed her hand. “I think he did,” she whispered, although his eyes were closed. It was our turn to nod. Ira died within a few hours of that interaction with his daughters. They were asleep on either side of him in the crowded bed, all curled up together.
I kept for two years, which was as long as my voice mail would hold onto it, a message from Izzy, who’s mom had taken my number as we parted in the morning. “Hi! This is Izzy. I didn’t see you since the night Daddy died. I wanted to tell you I went to the Daddy Daughter dance with my uncle. I love you! Bye!”
We are at the vanguard of transforming our cultural aversion to death. We need these conversations about death and dying to happen throughout our lives, in age appropriate ways, and so that if we are lucky enough to grow old, we are not having this kind of conversation for the first time. We want younger ones to be able to lean on us, and we want to not be so scared ourselves, when they do.
Statistics show that 70% of us hope for the deathbed scenario like Maureen’s experience with her mother, where death happens at home, pain free and peaceful, surrounded by loved ones… I would say ultimately that Ira had a good death too, even though he was in a hospital. But how he’d longed to be home, in his own bed.
In reality, 70% of us are dying in hospitals and nursing homes, many after spending 10 days in an ICU, undergoing invasive, sometimes painful, often expensive, and futile interventions. Interventions that many might have chosen NOT to undergo IF they had had meaningful conversations with their loved ones and health care providers along the way about their wishes…
Through the Conversation Project, and on our own in our own living rooms we can have these meaningful conversations.
I’m not saying death is never sad. No amount of talking will take away the sadness of losing a beloved… But talking together, cultivating a subtle day-to-day awareness of our mortality, is a deeply spiritual practice. It’s a practice that nourishes a sense of awe and joy and gratitude for this one, unique, amazing life we have been given.
It is the practice that allows us to join Mary Oliver in her realizations about our fragile, impermanent, and beautiful lives. Facing the truth that someday death will come like the hungry bear in autumn, she says:
“And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular, …
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.”
There is no cure for mortality. There IS the possibility that our aging and our dying can be blessed with a kind of healing wholeness when we restore these human events to their place in the sacred cycle of life.
We need courage and compassion if we are to contemplate this mortal existence… if we are to extract the blessings to be found in the intimate and essential conversations ….the conversations we need to be starting in the comfort of our homes and houses of worship—not waiting until a loved one is in the ICU.
When we start talking about what might matter most to us at the end of life, we are sharing more than our thoughts and concerns about medical treatments. We are sharing who we are, who and what we love, what we value about living, and what legacy we hope to leave our loved ones and our communities.
This gift of finitude—should we be willing to unpack it from the bubble wrap of avoidance and fear—the gift is more life, right now. Simple, joyful, grateful and free.
As the Onion piece says, no exception will be made in our case. But we can still get out of this life—not merely having visited this world—but living fully alive, having the best day possible each day. In the face of being mortal, let us bless the world with the most defiant thing we can: let us love one another, and let all that we do, be done in love.
May it be so.