The end of the year has brought a lot of the usual—visits with family and friends, trying to figure out New Year’s Eve plans, recovering from the busyness of Christmas (and pre-Christmas), and contemplating what might be in store as the year turns. This year, the end of the year has also involved the actual end of a life.
One of my parishioners passed away yesterday, after a very long, slow (occasionally excruciatingly slow) decline. Yesterday wasn’t the first time that I had been called to her deathbed. The other times, she rebounded. When I entered her room yesterday, filled with her family, everyone quiet, all listening to her labored breathing, it seemed quite clear that she would not rebound this time. And, in many ways, that was a blessing.
I greeted the family members one by one, all of them I remembered from when the woman’s husband died several years ago. We talked about what was happening. Then, I read a couple of psalms and we gathered around the bedside to pray, each of us laying a hand on the woman in the bed. During the next hour or so, we shared stories and comforted one another. We cried and we laughed.
It remains a wonder and a privilege to be invited and welcomed with family to a deathbed, though I must admit that it’s becoming a more difficult experience.
When I first became involved in ministry, in my twenties, I found end of life, and even death, oddly satisfying. It was an opportunity to be truly helpful, as I guided families and friends through the usually unfamiliar processes and language of grief. I remember the gratifying experience of spending time in a hospital or nursing home, praying and reading scripture as one person in the room was breathing their last breaths. Although what I do in such a circumstance is not rocket science, there is something to it that I know seems completely unfathomable to many.
As I get older myself, this whole business has become more fraught. While it remains an opportunity to be uniquely helpful, it has also become much more complicated—as my own mortality comes into clearer focus.
Yesterday, in the midst of the prayers and the stories, the tears and the laughter, I couldn’t escape wondering about my own mortality. Will my death be a long, drawn out affair or will it be short? Will it be expected or a surprise? Will family and friends surround me or will I be alone?
It’s not easy to contemplate one’s demise, but as I drove home from the nursing home yesterday, I became mindful, as I have in the past, that the days that one lives are significant—and that our days are made up of an awful lot of seemingly small, unimportant moments that feel like nothing. Yet, they are not nothing. While we talked yesterday of some of the regrets that the dying woman likely had, we also talked about the wonderful life she had lived, devoted to family, friends and faith. She hadn’t lived a perfect life, but she had lived the gift of life well. She lived with love, for her family and friends, and for the church.
As the new year dawns, and resolutions are considered, it might be a good idea to think not so much of the grand or essentially superficial resolution (yes, I would like to lose a few pounds), but to think of the small moments of life and to live them, most of them anyway, well—not perfectly, but thoughtfully. This coming year, that just might make all the difference.