Facing death with equanimity

Last month, Elizabeth wrote a comment on this blog that has stayed with me ever since. She said:

“One can die ‘safe in the arms of Jesus.’ One can die and not be afraid. ‘Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for THOU art with ME.’ In the relationship of  ‘I/thou’ with God or with those who know and love us, as described by Martin Buber, we can face death with equanimity.”

The week before Elizabeth wrote her comment, an x-ray revealed an “area of concern” on my lungs. The young resident prescribed antibiotics, although neither she nor I thought I had pneumonia. It was simply the first step in reaching a diagnosis of what could be “anything from scarring to lung cancer.”

The resident was quick with cheery assurances that non-smokers like me were unlikely to get cancer. But her good cheer was lost on me. I have known three women my age – all non-smokers, two from my immediate neighbourhood – who started with non-descript coughs like mine and died within the year.

I went home to tell my husband, Paul, who had been anxiously hoping I would visit the doctor. And that night I sat in my rocking chair, and began to contemplate a different future than the one I had taken for granted.

The night in the rocking chair

It was a revealing night. I think I had always imagined that the prospect of an early death would terrify me. I am not a brave person. I am not the one to walk along the cliff’s edge or sled down anything but the bunny run. I snivel through sentimental movies, and even a touching obituary about a stranger will make me cry.

But as I sat rocking, I realized that I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t hoping that I didn’t have cancer. I was sad for my family’s sake, but not that much for my own. I didn’t feel like fighting back. I didn’t want to beat this thing. My chief response was, “Oh well. These things happen.” or in the words of a running joke between Paul and me, “Worse things happen at sea.”

What I felt, to my great surprise, was a sort of contentment. There is a 102 year old woman at Quaker meeting who often stands up, proclaims, “Most of the things we worry about never happen,” and plunks down in her seat. She is right. The prospect of an early death does indeed sweep away petty worries. I remembered Allan Reeve urging us to “live as if we were already dead.” Now I had a glimpse of how freeing it might be to live as if there were no tomorrow.

Paul and St. Paul

I also gained a new appreciation for both Paul and St. Paul. I recognized, as I had known only superficially before, that I would much rather be the sick one than the caregiver.  Illness absolved me of responsibility – no-one expects much of the sick. Paul would have to care for me, console our children, earn a living, face financial loss, somehow juggle his own life, and face prospects very different from those he had imagined.

I also realized that I had misjudged St. Paul. I have always found his “to live is Christ and to die is gain” statement rather suspect. He says he doesn’t know what to choose, to live and do fruitful labour, or die and be with Christ. It is really only for others’ sake that he feels it necessary to live. My reaction had always been, “Yeah right, Paul.” But sitting in my rocker, I felt pretty much the same.

My non-Christian readers might be surprised that I have not mentioned a hope in going to heaven. I do believe that our lives do not end with our last breath. But I don’t have a clear picture of what that will look like, and I don’t think the Bible offers one. We simply know this: that we will be with God; that we will be changed; and that death will be swallowed up in victory.

(I particularly love one homey, undramatic passage from John 14, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

Being where God is. It’s a beautiful picture of both life and the life hereafter. Death, where is your sting?

The postscript: A few days after I started on antibiotics I began to get better. A follow-up x-ray found that the “area of concern” was entirely gone. I probably had pneumonia. I definitely don’t have lung cancer. I am glad at the outcome. But I am also very glad for my night in the rocking chair.

Friends, I’ve describe one night’s thoughts. I know many of you have faced the question of death far more deeply than I have. Your reflections would be most welcomed.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Facing death with equanimity

  1. Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove

    Thanks for this, Joy. I read it in tension – I’m one of those who would be left behind and a part of my mind kept racing ahead with words, emotions, images (“How come we haven’t seen Joy and Paul for so long?” A picture of you and I having coffee/tea somewhere. “What about Paul? What about Paul?” Impressed, envious of you getting the words down and out to us.). But mostly I was right there with you, knowing what you meant, honoured you were letting me in on what was happening that night.

    It’s true – if the diagnosis had been different, and the certainty set in – you (and I, who have known a little of the same journey) would likely have to deal with piles more emotion. Fear, anxiety, empathy to the point of pain for those who love us.

    But the significant point of your experience that night, as described, was for me your acceptance and the confidence that it was really okay. Death itself isn’t the scary thing.

    For me, that would be having to let go, having to deal with the ultimate Separation Anxiety. Also, having to be balanced: to both be pro-active in fighting where we could see the fight being worth it (staying as un-sick as possible ’til the end) and tranquil in the depth of soul. It would be hard.

    But mostly, Joy, it made me very happy – and does to this minute – that you are not going to be that very ill person. Not yet. Maybe not ever! Who the heck knows what to wish another or oneself as the best way to die?

    Enjoy the summer – we will see you before the end of it. We must. love, Rosemary

  2. Kathy Campbell

    Dear Joy, I am so glad that your night in the rocking chair was a time of peaceful resolution for you. I am sure that parts of it were hard, but that you came to peace is wonderful. And what Elizabeth wrote is very reassuring.

    Yet for me when faced with the possibility of death there are many feelings and experiences. There are feelings of doom and fear and resolution and peace. There are experiences of not knowing if I will wake up when going to bed some nights. There is the experience of meeting others walking the same path and knowing incredible fellowship and sharing. There is the not knowing how to leave what and who I love. Most of all there is the experience of Jesus Christ, the Son, and the intervention of this brother and friend, this redeemer and savior.

    It is hard to think of leaving who and what I love, so it is hard to think of dying. I think we can only dwell on it for a short while. Perhaps the thinking prepares us because we all will die one day. But I would like very much to know my friends and family and cats for a longer time; and to have more time to get to know Jesus, the remarkable Son of God before I go to meet him face to face.

  3. ” Love and Death are the greatest gifts that are given
    to us; mostly they are passed on unopened. ”
    -Rainer Maria Rilke

    Recently I have been given these two gifts. My dearest friend, Jeremy died this month of liver cancer.
    We ” faced death” head on for the last year and twice before during long marathons of illness. Facing his death has been my greatest teacher.

    Jeremy was born with Hemophelia, then contracted
    AIDS from Red Cross blood products in the 80’s. His cancer was a direct result. So death was a constant in his life from day one. It made him fearless, he lived
    in the moment, enjoyed life more than anyone, was
    unbelievably compassionate, and had a galaxy of deep
    friendships. A lifetime of suffering gave him a wisdom
    and empathy that people were magnetically drawn to.

    From this journey that I shared with him, I’ve learned
    that, how you have lived is how you will die. If you are
    angry in life, you will be the same in death. If you are
    happy in life, you will die gently and peacefully. If you
    haven’t cared for others, you may be alone.

    The Buddhists use a term, ” the wisdom
    of no escape.” There is no escaping illness, no escaping growing old, no escaping death. Over the last
    year, with absolute grace and practicality, Jeremy
    prepared for his death and fought for life at the same time.
    He gradually had to let go of everything, there was no
    escape.
    All possessions, home, friends, family, independence, vital energy, hope of getting better. His physical body that challenged him all his life, and created a rare
    spirit, was fading before our very eyes.

    In the end, I’ve learned that ”dying gently” is an art. All you have is the love that you hopefully
    have cultivated through your life, the the results of
    your actions.

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