About a year ago, the woman who had been office administrator at the church I serve was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and after surgery, brain cancer. She was given up to a year and a half to live. I was with her when she started to forget little details. I was with her when she was in the emergency room and learned of a large mass in her frontal lobe. I’ve sat with her in the office and at home talking about the past and what the future might be like.
As a minister I spend quite a bit of time with families dealing with death. I have loved getting to know families after a loved one has died as we sit down together to share stories in preparation for a service of remembrance. It’s a time that helps me get to know the one who has died better but I also get to know their families so much better too. It is sacred time. It’s harder though, journeying through that death with an entire family.
And this time it’s different. It’s harder. Denise was not just our office administrator. She is my friend. And I’ve walked this walk pretty closely with her. It’s been difficult. I can’t deny that, but it has also been an incredible gift, to journey toward death with someone who means so much to me. This experience, of course, has brought me closer to her husband, her daughter and her son. I’ve been given permission to step into their lives as they each deal with what is probably one of life’s most difficult situations~ caring for someone who slowly disappears as a devastating cancer takes over the brain.
About three months ago or maybe it was six~ the time has gotten away from me, we sat down together, Denise and I, and we started to plan her funeral, just the two of us. She wanted it simple, and not expensive. She insisted that there was no bigger waste of money than going all out for a funeral. I asked her if she wanted me to write her eulogy soon, so that I could read it to her before she died. She said yes, so I did that. She and Tom were both in the downstairs of their condo on the afternoon I arrived ready to read it to her. Tom looked a little stunned at first when I explained what I was doing, but once I started to read he seemed happy for being there. After I finished Denise looked at Tom and asked, “Are you crying, Tom?” Tom said that he was. I think that perhaps this experience helped the two of them. It may have opened a door that allowed them to communicate a little more openly about what was happening.
The hardest part is to begin the conversation about death and about dying. It can become the elephant in the room, and the people who most love the one who is dying can’t bring themselves to acknowledge that this person that they love so much is dying. I know this because when my mom was dying thirty years ago now, we never even mentioned the subject with her. I think that experience may be what has pushed me to become pretty good at being with people who are dying. It takes practice, I’m afraid.
Later, Tom told me that Denise had wondered to him what it would be like to die. He told her he thought it was probably just like falling asleep. You never know when it will happen. When you wake up you never remember what it was like to fall asleep~ you just go away for a little while. Death is like that, he told her, except that you don’t wake up again. But you don’t know that. He said he thought it made her feel better.