I know that we don’t like to talk about unpleasant things like the end of life, but let’s face it – in elderhood it is closer to our minds and hearts than ever, and if we are growing in understanding and acceptance, our end seems less and less a stranger, if not yet a friend. So this week, I want to show that as difficult as last months – or weeks – or days may be, if we get to have them, they can hold more grace than we might imagine.
As a pastor, I have spent time with many elder married couples who are facing the reality that the death of one of them is in view. This is a kind of amalgamation of many of them and of the way our visits so often unfolded. So many similar threads. They are all the face of grace that met with us in these hard times and taught us the sacredness and beauty of life and of its ending.
A CONVERSATION AROUND LIVING AND DYING
Their children are worried, but this husband and wife are putting on a brave face, though there are momentary chinks in their armor now and then for the astute observer. I have come to spend time with them now that the diagnosis is clear. The time is shorter than they thought.
Something has signaled that the end is near. Cancer that is incurable. Found late. Pneumonia that saps strength and body. A heart that is giving its last and will too soon stop its beating. Time is short.
Life has changed now and the road ahead has unrecognizable potholes and rough places and detours. They are both frightened and both, incredibly brave.
They have navigated the pitfalls of life together for decades and celebrated every wonder that has come their way. They have mourned together their every loss: this, the final one.
The rings, placed on their fingers after the words, “‘…til death us do part,” have grown thinner with time and wear. And life has carved the increasing lines along their faces, grown deeper now with the unfamiliar uncertainty. Lines which will also mark the courage that is already quietly arriving.
Their smiles have a winsomeness to them, as if molded by the whispers of the time that grows shorter now – too short now.
Their stories are written in their eyes, words hardly necessary any more except to make the details clear to this visiting presence who has come to be with them. The picture of nervousness is woven in the circling of their fingers, carving the air with the emphasis of the uncertainty of this rare time, sometimes grasping them tightly in their laps.
I sit with them now, their pastor, holding the sacred trust that they are gently offering me as we quietly build the texture of the coming time that is left. It is holy time.
One of them will be left alone. This we know. And that empty space will be left for another day. For today, it is grace enough to carry together the fragile fabric of their dismay. And to make plans.
The rooms of their hopes are nearly empty now. There are still a few: ease the suffering, give us as many days as possible before we say good-bye. One more day at the end. For time enough to finish the work that was begun when they first met and knew a lifetime together lay before them. One more chance to say, “I love you.” One more to say, “Thank you.”
There will be more than words now, on this day. There will be silent spaces to carry the weight of what we know and the empty places that have opened up before them.
To honor the sacred and to grasp – even tentatively – what has come now. And to lay the foundation for the new life that awaits both of them.
For these moments, there is someone familiar here to help bear the weight with them. To share the memories and to carry with them the coming of the empty places and to honor the silent spaces that hover beyond words.
To whisper of the now-empty places that once were so full of life and laughter and a future.
This is one of the graces of elderhood: these last times shared, knitting up the final threads.
Grace arrives. And love abides still.
Life will go on. It will arrange itself as it will and as we let it. There will be other empty rooms and silent spaces. Love will surround them all.
And for now, hands joined, the iconic prayer, spoken quietly, reverently together, “Our Father, who art in heaven…,” fills the empty spaces for a time. It has been good to be together and to acknowledge the exquisite pain and grace of grief. And to know that we do not walk it alone.