How to talk to my friend who is dying

My friend is dying. The doctors have given up on chemotherapy and switched to “palliative care”. They say she may have six months, but really they don’t know how long it will be.

It has been so hard to know how to talk to her.

Two girls sit on the bench against the backdrop of the mountains

Several years ago, when she told me the breast cancer was back and had metastasized to her bones, I didn’t want to be the kind of person who avoids difficult conversations and blocks people from expressing themselves by trying to keep everything nice. So I jumped in with both feet and asked how she felt about dying, and we talked about that a bit, but it turns out there isn’t a lot to say on the subject.

The years passed and she continued to be active in our church and to volunteer for a free clinic serving our community, and she started helping at the local Cancer Center (she still volunteers there). She quit running, but she still walks almost every day. She lost weight (although she’s always been thin, so it wasn’t that obvious) and gained two attractive wigs. (She doesn’t need them any more, but she told me the other day that she quite missed the convenience of using a wig. Her hair is still very thin, and it annoys her to have to get it cut.)

I got used to the fact that she was sick, and although I loved the respite of quiet afternoons drinking tea in her immaculate, dog-free home, I saw her rarely. I checked in every now and then to make sure she was okay, and she was always busy and contented. But I avoided visiting her because it didn’t feel right to talk to her about the anger and frustration I felt as I got more and more engaged in dog rescue … because, after all, she was dying. In the face of that unyielding fact, the chaotic jungle of my life didn’t seem important enough to share.

Then, as my life spiraled further out of control, I simply did not have the capacity to help shoulder her burden. This year I hardly contacted her at all. (I don’t know why I thought shouldering her burden was my job.)

A few weeks ago I called her. She was glad to hear from me, she said, but she was too busy to visit that week. “I’ve just had people in and out non-stop,” she explained. Her sons visiting, with their families. Her sister. A steady stream of friends. Her sons again. And the folk from Hospice.

Hospice?

“Yes, I’m in Hospice care now.”

And suddenly it hit me. This is real. A day is coming, in the very near future, when the sun will come up, and set again, and in between there will be weather and traffic and conversations, but my friend will be gone.

I went to see her after her visitors had left. I took her some eggs, new laid by our hens, and nectarines off our tree. I was so scared – of what she would look like, of how I would hide my reaction if she looked like someone who was dying. I wondered what we would talk about, and reminded myself that I would encourage her to speak freely and openly about what she was going through.

She was sitting in her front garden when I arrived. Free of chemo, her hair has grown back, and there was a glow of color in her face. She was radiant.

I sat down, and asked her how she was doing. The pain is bad sometimes, but she takes meds when she needs to. It’s hard to sleep, but she has an iPad, and she spends the long nights reading emails and Facebook and checking in with friends. She’s given up driving because she doesn’t think it’s safe, with the drugs. She’s sad that she can no longer travel to other parts of the state to watch her grandsons compete in athletic events, because it’s just too hard to spend hours at a stretch in a car. She is getting lots of visitors, and although sometimes they stay too long, she loves having people around.

I told her that if ever she wanted company without having to make conversation, I’d be glad to bring my laptop to her home and simply be there. Her face lit up, and she told me she had just bought a big, comfy easy chair and installed it in her bedroom, for precisely that purpose.

Our conversation lagged into silence. I felt helpless and tongue-tied. It seemed self-indulgent to complain of the bleak wasteland my life had become toward the end of last year, and selfish to chatter about the tender green shoots that are emerging as I enter a new phase of my life. But… there’s only so much you can say about dying.

Then her phone rang. She glanced at it, clicked her tongue, and told me about an annoying problem she was having – calls from companies wanting to sell her “death stuff”. She wondered what contact list of terminally ill people they’d bought or hacked into. That triggered a memory of a telephone scam I had recently evaded – a too-good-to-be-true offer of a free cruise that culminated in a request for my credit card details.

Little by little, our conversation picked up. We agreed that neither of us was much interested in going on a cruise, and I told her about the cruise ships that annoyed me when Himself and I were visiting Alaska. She told me about her trip to Alaska a few years back, and how disappointed she’d been not to see a glacier because the weather was bad the day they were supposed to go. “I’d like to go back,” she said.

“Ja, me too,” I said. And then we were silent for a while, and I thought about what she’d just said. Because, of course, she’s not going anywhere. And then I thought about the glaciers I had seen, and about their pure, perfect blue that is like looking into God’s eye. And I thought about where she would, in fact, be going – and I remembered that there would surely be glaciers there, and every imaginable and unimaginable other kind of beauty, all shining in the direct light of God’s eye.

Alaskan Glacier

And that’s when I finally got it. There is no topic I can’t raise with her that we wouldn’t have discussed five years ago. Yes, she will soon be moving on. Yes, it’s scary, especially as the transition is likely to be painful. But she has made her preparations, and is confident of her destination. And right now she is still most emphatically alive.

I will visit her soon and let the conversation meander where it will.

3 Barriers Hijacking Christians’ Ability to Love Our “Enemies”

Fear, nationalism and love of power – three of the most ubiquitous threats to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I hope you find this post as thought-provoking as I do.

pub theologian

Guest post by Jon Huckins 

Empathy-1024x540In recent years, my family has navigated some rough patches; death, cancer treatments, open heart surgeries, chronic disease, etc. Now, I’m certain this isn’t everyone’s experience, but mine has been that in these times of trauma or tragedy, family comes together to stand with one another as we wrestle through life’s crap. We aren’t picking fights, we are crying on each other’s shoulders.

In recent months, our human family has been enduring an especially rough patch.

War.

Racism.

Suicide.

Deadly viruses.

Plane crashes.

Whether in remote villages or urban centers, few have been untouched (in some way) by the realities unfolding.

As I observe our corporate response to tragedy as a human family, and evaluate my own response in the midst of it, I have noticed something disturbing unfold. Rather than rally together as a family navigating a season of trauma, we have used…

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Here I come, ready or not…

There are so many things I want to write about on this blog that I keep getting stuck. It’s like when I empty the horse trough (one of these days I’ll write about Vos and Lizzie) and the water is all manky with bits of hay and blown in dirt and those tiny moths that are just everywhere at this time of year, and you have to keep pulling the muck out of the plughole to keep the water draining, and every time I toss it aside I think, “That really should go on the compost heap.” (I’ve already written some about my garden, but haven’t had the heart to report on what a disaster it’s become. But my point, in this context, is that even muck has value.) And then one of the dogs will do something whacky (when people ask how many I have I say “Three”. If pressed, I admit that Himself also has three. And yes, I know, having six dogs is just weird. But they’re all rescues … and that’s another thing I want to write about: my years in dog rescue, and the funny / crazy / heartbreaking things that happened, and how it feels, now that I’m retired, to watch someone else running the organization I built.)

But the matter I cannot escape is God. I have gone back and forth over whether to share this here, or keep it to private conversations with trusted friends. I have decided to share it because I don’t think I’m alone with my doubts and beliefs and puzzlement as to how to reconcile the two. Maybe there are others who would like to join this little pilgrimage to find that holy place of the heart. Surely there are others who have walked this way before me, and might have wisdom to share. And if you merely want to kibbitz about it, that’s fine too. I’m simply going to approach this topic as I do the horse trough – keeping the plughole clear, flushing out the muck with a high pressure hose, and in time, I trust, watching it fill with clean water.

I looked up “Seeking God” on Google, and the Bible quotes that bounced up and smacked me upside the head were all a conditional promise – “If you seek me you will find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” Am I ready to give the whole of my aching, dented, distracted heart to this search? Honestly, probably not … My heart is a slippery thing that sneaks off about its own affairs with little regard for what the rest of me may want. But I’ll give what I can, and trust the God I do believe in to supply the rest.

When you play hide-and-go-seek, you begin with your hands over your eyes, counting. Then you turn and call out, “Here I come, ready or not!” At that point, the one thing you know for sure is that those whom you seek are somewhere other than where you are. Another thing you know is that they are in a place that you can find them. You have taken your hands off your eyes, and you look around.

So let me begin by defining my starting point.

I believe God exists. I believe in the unique “personhood” of God – in other words, as a being with thoughts, emotions, intentions, as opposed to a “divine force/spark/whatever”. For convenience sake, and because it’s annoyingly pretentious to use “she” or “it”, I will refer to this God as “he” and “him”, but I don’t actually believe he is confined by gender the way humans are.

I believe God is the creator of all things, including me.

I believe humans somehow made choices that caused them to become separated from God, and the spiritual sickness that resulted from this is what we call “sin”. I believe sin is deadly.

I believe Jesus lived, taught, died and rose again. I believe he is the actual son of God, and that his purpose was and is to reconcile us to God, by healing us from sin.

I believe in miracles. I have personally experienced too many of them not to believe. And no, I’m not talking about “the miracle of life” or how amazing it is that seeds turn into plants – I’m talking about events that are quite literally impossible but happen anyway. I’ll share some of those in future posts, because remembering and telling those stories makes me happy, and whoever reads them may enjoy them too.

And … that is as far as I’ve got in terms of actual, rock-solid belief. This is the ground I am standing on, the wall I have been leaning against while I counted down with my hands over my eyes, the patch of grass in front of my feet, the sky overhead. I have heard the opinions of atheists, some of them smarter than I and others not so much, and frankly it all sounds like nonsense – excuses, statements of faith in non-belief. Going forward I’ll probably write more on these subjects, because the fact that I believe these things doesn’t necessarily mean I believe a lot of other stuff that is usually attached to them.

Now for my own statements of faith – and the point here is that these are assumptions I choose to make because without them it would be impossible to proceed. But I find myself stopping and testing them at regular intervals, and I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s okay. I accept that I may eventually conclude that any of these assumptions is false – but right now, based on my experience, learning and pondering to date, I am satisfied that they are true.

I assume God is “good” – but I don’t actually know what that means.

I assume God “loves” me – but I don’t know what that means either.

I assume that the Bible is a somewhat reliable source of information about God. However, I have come to the conclusion that, even if it’s divinely inspired, it’s not necessarily factually accurate.

I’ve been told that God has a “purpose” for me – that he made me intentionally and for a reason. But really I don’t know what that is. Have any of the things I’ve done pleased or disappointed him? I hope and fear so, but I don’t know. Is there something important that I’ve failed to do? I feel that there is – but I don’t know for sure. Maybe I’m just dreaming when I think there must be something more.

So … why does any of this matter? Well, I “got saved” 31 years ago. I have been privileged to have some exceptional teachers – pastors and others – whose wisdom and willingness to tackle tough questions head on has consistently reinforced my faith and given me strength during hard times.

But except for brief periods of glorious clarity, my actual experience of life as a believer has been … muddled. Foggy. More questions than answers. More weakness than strength. More failures than victories. And I want better.

I believe God is, but WHO is he? What does he want of me? Why does he care whether or not I “worship” him (assuming he does)? What. Does. It. All. MEAN?

I have asked these questions on and off for years, and the answers I get (from humans) range from [very worried look] to “Read this book”. But the books are invariably syllogistic on at least some level – which is particularly depressing when the writers are clearly sincere, well-intentioned and good-hearted.

I just realized why I have to blog about this … It’s the most reliable way I can think of to ask God for answers directly. I am going to continue reading and thinking and searching and talking … but to that I’ll add writing, and just putting it out there.