Keeping Watch Through the Night, with Faith

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[Updated] I felt very dark in my faith two days ago, shaken, as I watched Dad’s discomfort while he prepares to transition from this world. And I wrote about it on this blog. But as I have said before, “Team Henry” doesn’t just support Dad. It supports me. And three of my most stalwart supporters responded with long and thoughtful emails. They meant a lot to me, so I am posting them here for the world to stumble across. I don’t think I’m at a place of peace and acceptance yet… maybe closer to Jim’s, “Well, dammit, Thy Will Be Done.”

My best and oldest friend, Ellen, the one who “saved me” with her friendship after we met by the lockers in 7th grade, sent this:

When Dad was dying, and he was in the hospital for the first time, and he was terribly paranoid, it was the first time I had ever seen my dad afraid, the first time he was not the strong one in our relationship. I was shocked that he could not access his faith to comfort him on some level. I remember trying to say the 23rd Psalm with him, pulling up the words from some deep memory: “Yea, though I walk through the shadow of death, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” I didn’t see it working. Where was God?

After he died, I had a crisis of faith. What good is faith when it’s not there for you at the end? Where is God in those moments? Is there a God? I don’t know…

So, some things have become apparent to me, and maybe they are apparent to you already, but I would feel better trying to share them with you.

One realization I have had in the passing years is that the life cycle of everything includes decay of some kind. As a being nears its end of the cycle, parts of it start to fall apart, or wilt, or stop working. A plant changes how it looks. It goes to seed. It starts to turn brown. It’s leaves begin to fall off. It’s the same with people. We all wear out towards the end. It’s the way we are made.

Unfortunately, there does seem to be pain with this change. Maybe plants and trees and animals feel some pain as they change, too. Who knows? If living is about learning and growing and developing and becoming, then there is all of that in the dying process, I guess. Maybe the pain is a part of the change process helping us become whatever we must be for the transition.

I also have spoken to people and read things that have helped me to begin to have a smidge of understanding about what is going on physiologically, especially in our brains. Maybe the deterioration, or the pain, or whatever, makes it hard for us to access the prefrontal cortex, the seat of logic and reason, and where faith probably lives on some level. If so, it’s sad that we find it difficult to hold onto that which could give us strength and solace. Add in a potpourri of drugs, and it must be even harder to access faith from a logical or reasoning place.

We are all afraid of that unknown that dying is. I am afraid of the steps to dying, the pain I have watched others experience. The agitation. I am afraid of how my death will hurt those I love. Am I afraid of what happens after I die? I have friends who believe nothing happens, and then I know those who believe that if we have been good enough, we go to heaven. I don’t believe in hell.

That weekend that Mom died Lynn told me about Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who had a near death experience and wrote a book about it. The title is “Proof of Heaven,” and I have since read the book. I can’t say it was fabulous, or that it changed me or even answered all of my questions, but it does seem to be reassuring in the fact that there is a heaven of some kind, for all of us, that is it another dimension of our existence.

I do not want you to have to go through the process of losing your dad. I think this pain is very hard, and on the heels of losing Mom, I would not want anyone to have to go through this. I do not want you to have to carry around the sadness that I am carrying, even though we both know it will ease some as time passes and we become accustomed to carrying this weight. I know having these experiences with death, and losing those that are so much a part of us, it shapes us, adds dimension to us, affects our path forward.

I have cried out to God, too. I have had my faith rocked. I have been there. I would wish you some peace instead of angst. I would hold you, and cry out with you, and be your mother, and friend, and sister, if I could. I love you, dear one.

And my friend and mentor, Jim, offered insight and practical advice (in bullet form!), as always. (When he refers to “his” 34-year-old father, he is speaking of his role as a hospice chaplain in Kauai.) From Jim:

  • God is with us, actually inside each of us even when we do not sense it, and remove enough of our own clutter and misgivings and pain to be fully conscious of divine love inside us.
  • God doesn’t have a dossier on each of us that reads how long we will live, how we will deteriorate, whether you get cancer or I get Alzheimers. We are spiritual beings having a human experience, and that experience is governed by the natural order which is haphazard, and evolutionary, and our individual biological destiny gene defined more than most anything else. But the soul was, is, and shall be.
  • It’s perfectly natural for us to wonder how a loving God could allow this or that, but fairness as we want it to be does not come with free will and nature.
  • I have asked for most of my life, “Why did you set it up this way God?” In my dotage I have come to accept that I will get an answer…I will see and understand only when my spirit is set free from my human experience.  Meanwhile, I have to trust, have faith in God’s unconditional love, and try to be a loving other in the world. And to be perfectly comfortable in having a fit from time to time about why it is this way — why my 34 year old father of three kids is dying of brain cancer, or my lady in the Alzheimer’s unit is so very lost.  Very hard to accept that we are not in control; that we have to ultimately turn it over to the embrace of the Divine.  Meanwhile we care for each other in the fullest sense we know how, offering love and our own broken heartedness with the words of the Christ  “Thy will be Done.”  You can even go so far as to say, “Well dammit, Thy will Be Done.”
  • I am sure you understand the chaplain was asking the question so he could get a sense of where your Dad is both spiritually and religiously so he can approach your Dad accordingly.  What the chaplain’s job in this team is, is to do anything he can to help your Dad have peace of heart and peace of mind. Sometimes this is expressed in religious language; often not.  Your Dad does not have to have all the answers to all the questions right now. He needs heart connection because that ultimately answers the unanswerable questions and ensures him peace of heart and peace of mind so he can release. Whether he connects in any way to a traditional notion of God, he sure does to your Mom and he wants to go and be with her.  So for him, there is a there there, and he has his heart set on arriving.  Leaving is generally harder than entering, for each of us.
  • Turn all your mixed feelings over to Divine Love.  Literally, write each one on pieces of paper; put them all into a bowl or pot.  Take a lighter and burn the scraps safely and as you do, tell the Divine to take care of this messy stuff so you can take care of your Dad and your self.  Each moment now, even the most gritty ones is precious. HUGS

And this, from my beautiful cousin, Lynn:

You are in my heart during this time of unbearable agony.  The Love you are feeling is God. Everything even the agony is part of that love. This is your path now… with your father. You are meeting it. Valiantly. You are supported. You are not alone.  

Is it possible for you to lie beside your father, maybe holding his hand, without words, and breathe together with him…  when you breathe in,  breathe in Love, when you breathe out surrender all your feelings to God/Universe, just let everything go.  Continue to breathe with your father’s breath and in that stillness you will feel God.   I love you, Lynn

[Updated] And more from beloved Jim:

Sometimes at the ICU or Emergency rooms, I encounter folks who are facing the worse — a loss that they wish were not so.  While friends and loved ones gather, no one can truly cut through the individual despairing that is happening.  Yet the presence of others is a comfort because it reminds those despairing and bracing for the worse that they are not alone completely, although the comfort does not abate the broken heart.

The same with God when we cry out for very understandable reasons, “Why are you…make it better…make it stop!”

Yet the presence of the Comforter is there deep inside whether we recognize it or not.  Not unlike what the Christ felt on the Cross when he said, “My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me” — that profound sense of broken heartedness that comes to us humans.  Yet God was there, and cut through what seemed like an ending and made it a beginning.

Turn it all over to God — see if you can make your cries personal — for me I have to talk to Christ Jesus, or the Holy Mother, or the Holy Spirit whom I equate with the female aspect of God.  I just ask them to be present with my loved one, to help them ease across that bridge over the river of life, to hold there hand in a way I no longer can, and open their inner eyes to what Steve Jobs saw at the moment of his death and exclaimed, “Oh WOW; Oh WOW”

Death will be your Dad’s final victory, Betsy.  HUGS

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