When I was a pastor I was fortunate enough to lead a multi-generational church. We had people in their 90s and newborns in the congregation. That’s not something that happens much in the Evangelical world these days. It was a great honor to have so many friends in so many different stages of life.
Of course, having an older congregational members meant going on many hospital visits, and yes, also performing quite a number of funerals. It was my experience that many people don’t just die suddenly, they waste away over a few years. When you’re the pastor of a small, inter-generational church, you get to know these people quite well. You spend a lot of time with people in their dying days. You spend a lot of time with their families through that period too. If you care about people, you fall in love with them during this process.
Bob and Marla were such a couple.
They had long attended the church before my arrival but I got to know them better when another church member was in the process of passing away. They appreciated my wife’s and my time with the dying man, and took us out to dinner on a number of occasions.
Bob was a grumpy man with a great sense of humor. I know those two things don’t sound like they’d go together, but they do. Not long after the death of their friend, we soon found ourselves at every family event that Bob’s extensive family hosted.
But then Bob started getting sick. And then he became the person I was visiting in the hospital. What made it really tough on him and Marla is that his sickness was following the exact same path as his late friend. We all knew exactly how this was going to end, and we were right.
So I spent a lot of time with him and Marla. I spent lots of time with Marla talking about her kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids. I spent lots of time with Bob talking about the milestone church events that took place before I got there.
We loved that couple and they loved us.
The birth of my first born was 1 day after the birth of one of the great-granddaughters, and 4 days before the birth of one of their great-grandsons.
One day at the rest home, when Bob was clearly not going to recover this time, the three children were playing together at the foot of his bead. All of them about 15 months old. He looked down and said:
Bob: I’m so grateful to have all three of my great-grandkids with me here today.
I could hardly stop my wife from crying. It was touching.
Two weeks later Bob passed away and I had the very difficult task of leading a funeral for my friend. And then Marla was alone. Lots of family, but her husband of 60 years gone. She became one of the beloved widows of the church.
I found out yesterday she was diagnosed with cancer and was finishing up her last round of radiation. She is not healthy enough for something like that. So I went with her granddaughter to visit her in the hospital. A place where I’ve already spent countless hours with her.
It was weird doing a hospital visit. I still carried myself as I did when I was a pastor. Still asked all the same questions, made very similar points, and talked about similar topics.
(Sidenote: I was never overly spiritual during hospital visits when I pastored. Everyone else talked about God, I always talked about the person)
After the visit I had to counsel the granddaughter who was clearly shaken at the thought of her grandma dying.
It was weird. But mostly it was sad.
I guess I was doing the work of a humanist chaplain. But aside from that, I’m in the hospital again, with someone who goes to church, watching them slowly slip away, knowing that our conversations are numbered.
As I think of her dying, I reflect on mortality. She will soon be no more. Death has the final say and her…being(?)…will be just as it was before she was conceived; non-existant. This is our fate. This is everything’s fate. All things must end. The weirdest thing about this to me is that I think I’ve always known that.
Heaven (and conversely hell) was always preached, confessed, and “believed”, but I don’t think I really ever bought it. Not fully anyway. I don’t feel different about the impending death of Marla as I did for Bob. I’ve always processed death as the moment when someone turns from a friend into a memory. Where you no longer hear their voice. Where you cannot have any more conversations.
Sure, heaven was real and all, but heaven didn’t do a grieving family a lot of good. So my funeral sermons reflected very little on the afterlife and more on the remembrance of the gift of the loved one’s life.
It’s weird how different this does not feel, and I’m trying to process that.
Marla will more than likely die of her sickness. Fortunately I don’t have to do the funeral, I can just mourn at one. And at that funeral I won’t need to pretend there’s some great plan guiding us through our lives. I won’t have to pretend that I’ll ever see her again. I can just be thankful for how loving she was and try to pay it forward. Though I’m sure all the religion talk will drive me nuts.
I’m trying to think of a way to end this post, to wrap it all up nicely. I can’t, but then…how appropriate. Death does the same to us.