Are you able to contemplate your death and the death of those closest to you? Accepting the fact of death, we are freed to live more fully. In bereavement, give yourself time to grieve. When others mourn, let your love embrace them. (Advices and Queries 30)
A friend spoke about the death of a loved one in Meeting for Worship this morning. It took me by surprise. I was not expecting it. My mum died less than a week ago, you see. My friend spoke of remembering such a person’s characteristics: their challenges and experiences, their achievements too; more so, if they have lived to a long age, less, if someone dies younger. Perhaps..?
I tried hard to hold the sudden, unbidden tears inside. When someone you love dies, grief hits you when you least expect it. Here in meeting for worship, I’d hoped to enter quietly into the building, more or less unnoticed, to enter into a gathered, stillness. Instead, I noticed the front gates were closed as I slipped inside the side door and, on this Sunday when the clocks went forward, I realised I was the first person to arrive when the alarm went off. Fortunately, I know the code and pressed it in. All was quiet again.
I’d better open up, then, I thought, especially as I could see through the glass half a dozen people outside. And they could see me. I waved and smiled back at them. So much for my plan. As one of the Openuppers, I am practised in opening up the building. I turned the key in the lock which opens the metal gates inwards. Before they’d completely opened, for some reason, I pressed the button to unlock the internal glass doors. Wrong! I pressed the open button and now heavy metal gates were about to clang into glass doors.
Just when I needed help, the Openupper on the rota rushed in and pushed back the glass door. It gave me moments to put the key back in the lock and close the outside doors. I took a breath. This time it worked and everyone trundled in. Last in were two friends coming to meeting, it turned out, for the first time. Suddenly, the glass doors closed of their own accord, nipping at their heels. Arm in arm, they did a little hop across the threshold. ‘Welcome, friends!’, and held out my hand, thinking to myself how God laughs at the plans we make.
A friend came up and hugged me and I told her about my simplificatious plan, gone awry. Then, the Openupper came over. ‘You’re a star!’, she told me. Well, you don’t get…I don’t get, anyway, such a nice compliment every day. So, I smiled back at her and said, ‘Shall I stay down here and welcome everyone, while you set up?’ That was acceptable, so, I ended up welcoming nearly every single person to meeting. Thankfully, I enjoy doing this.
And so into meeting and my friend’s ministry. I felt there was something missing, something I needed to say, from my own recent experience. I had been moved to tears, tears I’d tried to hold back. I wasn’t embarrassed. I’ve come to learn that tears are the body’s way of dealing with stuff and are healing. I was just not expecting them. Not now, Not here during meeting for worship, in front of all these people. I thought about going out. Still, my breathing, in time, settled and I found my place again. Several times, a chain of words threaded through my mind. Would this be ministry? Should I, could I minister? Would my voice crack? Would I be given the words?
A few moments more and I had to say something. Rising to my feet, I thanked my friend for her kind words. Two parents of members of our meeting had died recently. I felt that something else needed to be added to her ministry. Simply, it is love.
I have a friend, a Quaker friend, not of this meeting, who speaks of sitting quietly with an elderly friend in hospital or hospice, while they lay dying. She talks as if it is a joyful gift. While admiring her ability to give of herself and be there for her friends, I’d always had my doubts about this. It’s not a pleasant experience being present while someone dies, surely? And yet, over the weekend when I sat for long periods by my mum at her bedside, I experienced a sense of joy and peace from sitting at the bedside of someone you love, as they near their death.
My mum had dementia for several years and this had slowly taken her away from us, bit by bit. And yet, perhaps we were lucky. There was enough left of her for us to still be with her, talk to her, go places with her. It was really only in the last couple of weeks, when she caught a chest infection that it felt like we’d lost her for good. Even then, in her last hours, I felt her lower eyeball follow me. We saw her head turn towards me speaking, as me and my sisters told stories from our childhood and growing up and laughed. In all of this, we always included our mum in the conversation. ‘That’s right, isn’t it, mum? Do you remember that?!’
Dementia is a cruel disease. For no good reason, I’d become afraid of getting it myself and sometimes imagined taking my own life early on if and when a certain stage was diagnosed. But, remembering my mum and sharing her experience of dying, surrounded by love and tender consideration from all her family as well as from the care staff, I realised something more important. Death is not so bad. God is love. And it was love that I felt was missing and needed adding in my friend’s ministry. I don’t fear death. I needn’t now fear the journey there. I hope to go like my mum, surrounded by stories told by loved ones. I need to trust more and leave everything to God. Place everything in God’s hands. God has guided me, not always willingly, up to this point in my life and will go on doing so. In the morning, do I not draw up ‘God’s love and light’, before ‘letting go, letting God’? Yes, I do.
A few days later, I emailed to close friends…’Well, the first thing I’d like to say, friends, is that I feel like I’ve been through hell these past few days and weeks. I feel so tired and yet woke at four this morning. And before you start saying stuff and virtually putting your arm around me, which is all good stuff, I just needed to say that. There. It’s out. Thankyou, friends.’
One of them answered, ‘Thanks for telling us the whole story – and the reality of the hell you’ve been through as well as the wonderful moments. That felt really ‘real’ and I was glad and sad to hear it. Sounds like it was an amazing funeral, so many people giving of themselves, what a tribute to your Mum and all the love for and from her… and just keep singing, Friend!’
I acknowledge your grief and am with you.
May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face, may the rain fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again, may God hold you in the hollow of his/her hand.
I’m ok. I’m safe now. You go now. You go.
Approach old age with courage and hope. As far as possible, make arrangements for your care in good time, so that an undue burden does not fall on others. Although old age may bring increasing disability and loneliness, it can also bring serenity, detachment and wisdom. Pray that in your final years you may be enabled to find new ways of receiving and reflecting God’s love. (Advices and Queries 29)
To be human is to live a paradox. We need the ego – our sense of individuality and selfhood – in order to operate in the material world and to be able to receive the mysteries of the spiritual world. To be touched by Spirit, to be transported into a sense of unity beyond the self, we need to start from and return to the self. As Ann Belford Ulanov says, we need to be home so that “non-ego forces” can touch us and we can touch them in return. (Christina Baldwin, in Life’s Companion, Journal Writing as a Spiritual Practice, p67)
Death is a stripping away of all that is not you.
The secret of life is to “die before you die” —
and find that there is no death.
Never be afraid of tears. The so-called civilization has made you very afraid of tears. It has created a kind of guilt in you. When tears come you start feeling embarrassed. You start feeling, “What will others think? I am a man and I am crying! It looks so feminine and childish. It should not be so.” You stop those tears…and you kill something that was growing in you.
Tears are far more beautiful than anything else that you have with you, because tears come from the overflow of your being. Tears are not necessarily of sadness; sometimes they come out of great joy and sometimes they come out of great peace and sometimes they come out of ecstasy and love. In fact they have nothing to do with sadness or happiness. Anything that stirs your heart too much, anything that takes possession of you, anything that is too much, that you cannot contain and it starts overflowing – that brings tears.
Accept them with great joy, relish them, nourish them, welcome them, and through tears you will know how to pray.
Through tears you will know how to see. Tear-filled eyes are capable of seeing truth. Tear-filled eyes are capable of seeing the beauty of life and the benediction of it.
Osho, The Diamond Sutra Talk #9
We all have connections with death. It is part of the life of the meeting.
Like love, loss cannot be quantified.
Where can we turn when our worst fears are realised?
To let love be the first motion.
As I approach old age, I experience the perverse desire to know less and less.
walking across the wide open spaces of the park,
listening to the birdsong,
on a bright sunny morning in March,
filled with joy
He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. (Psalm 91)
So I thought:
Isn’t darkness, after all,
But so much light
Wrapping itself around us –
As soft of feathers –
I watched the nurses come in for the morning hand-over. One of them started crying and then another. Both teams gathered round and comforted one another. I learned later that a little girl they’d been caring for had died that night.
‘I’, ’I’, ‘I’! I’ve heard a lot about ‘I’ this weekend and over the past week at work. Individual plans! Of course, the ‘I’ matters. It’s important. Unless I know who I am, how can I do anything, become me? But I’d like to hear more about the ‘we’ word, about ‘us’. Unless you’re there, I can’t do anything. I am no-one. It’s all about relationships. Whatever happens after death, I don’t know. I don’t need to know. It’s not a question I’m interested in. The end is…the end, in my view. Anything else will be a surprise. But I do know you only have one life, so live it. Do the best you can. In the simple things as much as the bigger ones. Say sorry. Don’t leave anything on the table. Be.
Friend, I’d like to tell you you are one of my favourite people on the planet.
For you formed my inward being,
You knit me together in my
I praise You, for You are to be
reverenced and adored.
Your mysteries fill me with wonder!
More than I know myself do You know me;
my essence was not hidden from You,
When I was being formed in secret,
intricately fashioned from the
elements of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance;
in your records were written
every one of them,
The days that were numbered for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
How precious to me are your creations,
O Blessed One!
How vast is the sum of them!
Who could count your innumerable
gifts and blessings?
At all times, You are with me.
(Psalm 139, as interpreted by Nan Merrill in Psalms for Praying)
I called in at the Co-op Funeral Service office on my way home and came away with ‘My Funeral Plan’. I must let Overseers and family know of my wishes. There’s probably a form to fill in for this. I’ll ask.
One time our good Lord said: “All thing shall be well;” and another time he said: “Thou shalt see thyself that all manner thing shall be well;” and in these two [sayings] the soul took sundry understandings.
One was that he willeth we wit that not only he taketh heed to noble things and to great, but also to little and to small, to low and to simple, to one and to other. And so meaneth he in that he saith: “All manner of thing shall be well.” For he willeth we wit that the least thing shall not be forgotten. (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, The Thirty-Second Chapter)
The Bells of Norwich by Sidney Carter…