The casket races are over for another Halloween and, as always, they were fun. It is kind of funny/strange/weird when you think about it — getting a laugh out of a casket, or a Styrofoam grave stone with R.I.P. out on your lawn.
That’s what we often do in our culture when something frightens us. We make fun of it as a way of avoiding it. Jon Stewart made a lot of us laugh by satirizing subjects who would ordinarily make us cry or curse.
Take death, for example. We don’t like to talk or think about it. Even when a person is terminally ill and she and everyone else knows it, we usually don’t bring it up.
When I was working as a pastor, I once visited a man in the hospital. As I was leaving, he said, “Don’t tell my wife I’m dying.” When I got out into the hallway, I bumped into his wife who said, “Don’t tell my husband he’s dying.”
I talked to a hospice chaplain recently whose job it is to shepherd “actively dying” people and their loved ones through the terminally ill person’s last days on earth.
“Most people think that my job is to help people die,” he said. “On the contrary. My job is to help people live, not by ‘curing’ them like doctors try to do but by participating in their ‘healing,’ i.e. helping them let go gracefully, relish every minute of life they have, and not be alone while they are doing it.
“My first task when I meet a person who has said ‘no’ to any more tubes and surgeries and tests is to establish trust,” he said. “I’m usually a stranger, so that is important.”
Once trust is established, the hospice chaplain’s next task is to help the dying person talk about what is happening with loved ones. Once they break through their resistance to face the inevitable, he said, they usually feel greatly relieved and actually find a lot of satisfaction in checking off concerns on their list: Who gets my Vietnam medals? What kinds of help do I need and what kinds of help do I not want? Making sure I clearly tell everyone how much I love them. Enjoying telling stories about the good old days. And laughing … a lot.
One woman I heard about from a chaplain I was interviewing wanted flowers in her bedroom at home every day and made hour-long appointments with each individual she loved, making sure she would transition to the next life with absolutely no regrets. At least two people in my former church helped me design their funeral services, picking the hymns and the readings and telling me how to write the sermon.
One of them, when we finished answering all the questions about her funeral, put her head back on the pillow, closed her eyes, and had the most peaceful, satisfied look on her face. After about half a minute of being quiet, she sat back up and with great enthusiasm said, “Now let’s plan the reception.”
I don’t mean to trivialize the dying process. It’s hard work — hard emotional and spiritual work. The process of entering life is called “labor” for good reasons. The process of exiting is hard work, too, for the people leaving life on this side and for those who love them. But come to think about it, what’s wrong with hard work? Every stage of life seems to involve some soul-testing challenge.
Except for my grade school years, every “passage” in my life, to use Gail Sheehy’s term, has included hard work. I still shudder when I think about adolescence. The very personality traits that attracted me to the woman I married in 1971 would drive me nuts after we were married. Then when we had children, I remember being tired, if not exhausted, all of the time. And then there came the divorce and the onset of my neurological disorder and on and on.
But at each stage the work was good and sometimes deeply satisfying. Marriage, for example. As difficult as it was at times, I could feel myself gradually “growing up” as a result of having to make this relationship work with this “being from Venus.” Martin Luther called marriage “the school for character.” Marriage was hard work at times, but the work was also good.
The goal of hospice is to make the work of the last of the passages “on this side” as good as possible. Call the chaplain and the nurse and the doctor on the hospice team your coaching staff. They can’t play the last quarter of the game for you, but they can give you some plays from their playbook that have worked repeatedly in similar situations and cheer you on from the sidelines.
Every hospice chaplain, and for that matter every funeral director, I’ve gotten to know never call the work they do fun. The words they use are “satisfying” and “meaningful.” Helping to carry a casket into the church for a funeral is a very different experience from pushing one in a casket race, but if you’ve gone through the last passage of life the way hospice does it, in the midst of the sadness there can be a deep sense of satisfaction and meaning.