Befriending Death

When someone dies, will they live again? All the days of my hard service I will wait for my renewal to come. ~ Job 14:14

In confronting death, I had a deeper experience than I had ever had before: a vision of pure unconditional love. –Henri Nouwen

Family lore passes down stories which shape and form us and give us reason to ponder. My Great Grandmother Parish was a devout United Methodist with unflinching faith and a crisp sense of humor.

My mother tells me that one day Grandma Parish collapsed on their kitchen floor. The family tried to revive her to no avail. After several minutes my Great Grandma Parish opened her eyes, looked her daughter, my Grandma Pruitt), in the eyes and said, “It was so beautiful. Why did you bring me back?”

In that moment I believe Grandma Parish made peace with death. She was convinced that something good was waiting on the other side. What is our attitude toward death? Is death the enemy? Do we “rage, rage against the dying of the light” as Dylan Thomas waxes in his poem? Or is it possible for us to “make peace” with death? While death is usually painful and full of sorrow does it also bring final gifts for those with eyes to see?

Jennifer went to see her ailing mom in the hospital over three weeks ago. Grandma Connie was full of cancer, and she had stopped eating. Jennifer called, “My mom has a limited amount of time left and I have medical power of attorney. What should we do?”

“What does your mom want?” “She’s ready to go. She wants to go home.” Grandma Connie had graciously accepted her imminent death; she would not fight death. Jungian analyst James Hillman writes about “befriending death.” We can befriend our dreams, befriend our shadow, befriend our unconscious, and we can befriend death. Henri Nouwen says, “We have to claim the totality of our experience; we come to maturity by integrating not only the light but also the dark side of our story into our self-hood.”

Life and death decisions are never easy and a person’s position in life, their circumstances, and their wishes all affect the decisions we make. However, we have a tendency, says Nouwen, to avoid, deny, or suppress the painful side of life—a tendency that always leads to physical, mental, or spiritual disaster.

Nouwen writes, “If we could move from denying to befriending our death before we die, if we could relate to death as a familiar guest instead of a threatening enemy, we would be freer of fear, guilt, and resentment.” We can see death through the eyes of love instead of fear.

Grandma went home not only to die but to live. “When we are ready to die at any moment, we are also ready to live at any moment,” say Nouwen. Grandma Connie’s bedroom became an oasis of grace, gratitude, and a peace that surpasses understanding. Pain and sorrow were very present, but they were pale in comparison to the love that saturated and permeated Connie’s “upper” room. We were standing on holy ground in the presence of the living Christ.

Jennifer and I held Grandma’s hands, we prayed with her, we kept her clean, and we continually anointed her body with “Holy Water.” When she opened her eyes, their vulnerability softened my heart again and again. Her gentle gaze touched my soul. “Thank you,” she said.

As friends and family members came by to say goodbye, Grandma Connie blessed each person. “I love you so much. You are very special. Thank you so much for coming.” And then she would say to everyone, “I will see you on the other side.” I truly believe in dying she was seeing the world through God’s eyes.

Nouwen writes, “In confronting death, I had a deeper experience than I had ever had before: a vision of pure and unconditional love. In the midst of my confusion and shock and unresolved guilt, I became very calm, very at rest, and there was an embrace of God that reassured me and gently told me, ‘Don’t be afraid. You are safe. You are going home.’”

Grandma Connie died on Sunday, September 12, at twelve noon. Jennifer and I cried as we said prayers and anointed her body with Holy Water one more time. In befriending death, she showed us how to live in love, and she showed us how to die in love. She manifested the grace of Christ. As Nouwen says, “We are born into love, and we die into love.”

Thanks be to God. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not even death,” (See Romans 8:38).

May we befriend death.
May we see death through the lens of our Creator’s love and not fear.

Blessings and peace,