A man in my community died last month. After a twelve month tangle with glioblastoma, he entered a ten-day rapid unraveling and died on July 29. In the last months of his illness, his wife, a trained nurse, had a hospital bed set up in their living room by their big picture window, looking out over the lake. From his bed he counted sailboats, prayed for the occupants of the air ambulance helicopters traveling to the hospital nearby, and also watched his wife move about in the kitchen. As much as possible, they left the windows and doors of their home open so that he could sleep and wake to the sound of the waves and wind.
In the summary his wife wrote about his death, she said, “He spoke tender loving words of encouragement to all of us and his eyes welled up with love all day long… For the last ten days he was only able to move his right arm and head but when I leant over him, that right arm always came around me with a hug, back rub or gentle patting. They were the best hugs ever and I can still feel them.”
This week, another friend of mine shared with me the story of her mom’s death from lung cancer six years ago. The day before she died, she slipped into a coma, but then quite suddenly, my friend wrote, her mom “took a deep breath and her eyes flew open and she said clearly, ‘Not yet…’ And she muttered quietly ‘love you all.’ Her eyes took a deep look at all of us, crinkling and smiling and loving each of us in turn.”
This precious woman died the next day – on the 19th of June in 2016. My friend’s dad’s former boss, who was at the funeral, told her dad just this week that her mom’s funeral six years ago “changed his life.” On account of his experience of this death, my friend told me that “he decided to quit his job and find something more conducive to being with his family and to seek God anew.”
Our deaths are our final gifts that we give to those we love. Those who die suddenly do not have the time to prepare and wrap the gift in the same way, but those who know that their deaths are on the near horizon are able to give their deaths away in a final act of blessing.
Ronald Rolheiser writes about Jesus’ death in the final chapter of his book, The Sacred Fire. Jesus gave his life away for three decades. He loved, taught, touched, fed, healed, blessed. But then, he gave his death away. “After his arrest, all the verbs become passive: he is led away, manhandled by the authorities, whipped, helped in carrying his cross, and ultimately nailed to the cross. After his arrest, like a patient in palliative care, he no longer does anything; others do it for him and to him. He is passive, a patient. And in the manner that he endured that passivity, he gave his death for us” (p. 287).
Rolheiser draws our attention to the blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ side after he died. Blood – the force of life. Water – the source of cleansing. These were streams of blessing for all who loved and love Jesus.
Our deaths, too, can leave streams in their wake. Rolheiser tells the story of a man who died well. (I think these words might also describe the wakes of the death stories I shared above.)
After his funeral, as we walked out of the church to a small reception, there was not one person who knew this man well, including his grieving wife and children, who, at a level deeper than the sadness of the moment, did not feel freer, less guilty, and more open to life than ever before. He wanted to do his death right, and he did, and that reinforced everything good he had done in his life so that what he wanted to give to us came to us – the goodness of his life and the love he showed in his death. Blood and water flowed from his casket, to all of us and not least to his family. (p. 295)
By contrast, Rolheiser says, there are those whose deaths seem to suck the life out of the air. There are no streams of healing or nurture or refreshment in the wake of their passing.
Once in my mom’s last year of life she said to me, “I taught you how to live, and now I’m teaching you how to die.” She certainly did. For decades and decades, she gave her life away. And in the end, in the “manner that she endured [her] passivity,” she gave us her death. Her final gift. At a “level deeper than the sadness of the moment” (and let me never minimize the sadness of that moment and the many sad moments since), I was freed and released and cherished in and by her death. Blood and water flowed from her casket. As strange an image as that might be, it has remained vividly in my mind since I read Rolheiser’s book a year ago.
I name the streams of blood and water and testify to the experience of them in Jesus’ death, in my mom’s death and in the deaths of so many, including the beloveds whose stories I shared. And I pray that someday, I too may give my death away, and that blood and water might flow.
*Death stories shared with permission.
*Header Image: Hebrews 12:2. Looking Unto Jesus by Mark Lawrence, used with permission.