Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

Death, Loss and the Spirituality of Mortality, sermon at UU Society of Sacramento, Sunday, November 3, 2013

Hymns:  #1003, “Where Do We Come From?”;

#123, “Spirit of Life”; #86, “Blessed Spirit of My Life”.  Also, parody of “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Nicaea) by Christopher Raible:  “Coffee, Coffee Coffee,”  verses 1 and 3.

Choral Music: Autumn Vesper, words by Emily Bronte, music by Audrey Snyder

Shared Offering  for Sacramento Loaves & Fishes.

Testimony by Diane O.

Jean’s mother, Lucille, was lying silently in her bed, her breathing labored, and her face was pinched in pain.    Her morphine didn’t seem to help much.

We kept her lips moisturized, and frequently dabbed her face with a warm washcloth.  We placed a soft cuddly toy in her hand to hold.  We had created an altar of sorts on her rolling bedside table with her favorite objects, fresh yellow roses in a vase, and photos of those she loved including a picture of her husband, Warren. When we repositioned her each time we made sure Warren was in her line of sight.

We made up the futon and spent the night in Lucille’s room.   We startled throughout the night anytime Lucille’s breathing seemed to stop but then she would take in a deep breath.   By morning we were all exhausted.

Jean had left the room momentarily as I finished repositioning Lucille.   I leaned over and carefully wrapped my arms around her so I wouldn’t add to her pain.  I cried as I told her I loved her and was glad she had come to live with us.

I told her I loved Jean and would take care of her for the rest of my life.

I whispered to her… that I was worried about her struggling so hard to live.   I Told Lucille that it was time to dance a Strauss waltz with Warren again.  He was waiting for her, and she would be safe.

I tucked her covers, wiped my tears off of her face and gently kissed her cheek. When Jean returned we left her alone to quietly rest while exiting through the door of her bedroom onto the porch.   A few minutes later I looked through the door and noticed the cuddly toy on the floor.  –Jean!!!!!!!    We rushed to her bed.  Lucille had moved on to a gentler plane of existence to join her husband and family.

Good-bye, Lucille, and thank you for teaching us about the honors we are bestowed in life.

[Addendum: Death and I are familiar old friends.  Death is as beautiful in its pain and sorrow as is the joy and promise while holding a newborn covered with placenta fluids screaming its first cry.   This little story is meant as an adieu  to Lucille as much as a thank you for teaching us to live, dance, laugh and cry with honor when life can be a struggle. ]


Sermon by Roger Jones

            This has been the weekend of All Souls Day and All Saints Day in the Christian calendar.  In the Pagan tradition, it is the time of Samhain (SOW-in), the time when the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest.  In Mexican cultures, the Day of the Dead, or el Dia de los Muertos, is a time to laugh at mortality, remember our ancestors, and celebrate life with art, music, food and fellowship.  Our mortality is the cause and the reason for all of these ritual days

            We are all bound together–all of us–in the common experience of being alive, and knowing that each one of us will die, and having to make some response to this reality.  With those words I begin most of the memorial services at which I officiate.

            Death comes to us all.  Loss hurts us all, sooner or later.  Yet it is not easy to talk about death, especially if it’s near.  To speak about our vulnerability to loss and death… perhaps this makes us feel even more vulnerable.

            Yet when we take the risk to open our heart, we may gain a stronger heart.  When we dare to reach out in times of loss or fear, we may find a warm embrace, a kind word, or a quiet, listening presence from another person.  To exchange such gestures of welcome and honesty is a spiritual gift.  It can be a source of spiritual growth.

            All of us can be enriched by the honest gifts of sadness and love, the mix of memories, gratitude, grief, and fear which are part of dying and part of mourning a loss.   One of the gifts of being a minister is the invitation to hear what it means to lose a dear friend, colleague, family member or another loved one.  Also, it is an honor to bear witness to the feelings and thoughts of a congregation member who is facing the end of life.   These experiences have enriched my life.  They nourish my spirit, with gratitude for the gift of life and for the moments I have with others.  As a young person, I was afraid of life in many ways.  As a minister, learning about loss, death and grief has deepened my love of life.

            I think the main ingredient is honesty.  I learned this the hard way, and only in looking back over the years.

When I was nine years old and my brother was in his junior year of college, he married his high school sweetheart.  This was against our father’s wishes and loud protestations, but I had a new friend in my young sister in law. Her name was Lynn.  I had fun watching movies and shopping with her, and going to stay with them in their new mobile home.  Within two years they had a baby boy, and I was an uncle.  They gave him my middle name.  Not long after that, my brother’s wife began having serious physical symptoms.  Weeks and weeks of tests at the university medical center revealed a rare type of cancer.  Because my father was a physician, he learned from his medical colleagues that her prognosis was fatal.  He told my mother; Mom told her sister.  In a moment of upset, Mom told me, sort of.   Standing over the bathroom sink, crying as she brushed her teeth, she blurted out:  “Lynn might have something terminal.”   Nobody else in my or my sister in law’s family heard it straight, including her.   My parents did not talk any more with me about what was happening.

Photographs from her baby son’s first birthday party show that the illness and the treatments for it had withered and weakened Lynn.  Three months later, she died.  I don’t know how or when the denial about her fatal condition ended.  I think she asked “Am I going to die?” and they told her no.

Those were the days when medicine was heroic and its inadequacies were cause for hushed words.  As I recall, many people with a terminal diagnosis spent long stretches in hospitals and often died there.  Death was a shameful enemy, something to fight so much that you couldn’t let up for a moment, even to talk about it.  As a boy, I didn’t know how to talk about it, didn’t know when or with whom it would be okay to talk about my sister in law’s prognosis, or my fears, or my love for her.  I was an invisible witness.  I was not an invited or included participant in this family drama, even though I had been foretold its conclusion. I was thought of as too young to visit her in the hospital.  Had I been able to go, it might have been a source of comfort for her, as well as for me.

When she died, my brother called my parents on the phone from the hospital.  I listened in on the telephone extension in another room.  After my parents expressed their sorrow, Mom told her son, “Come on home, Honey.” Then my mother called her sister, long distance. I listened in on their conversation too.  I wanted to hear how you say these things, and how one reacts to the news.  Just after my aunt said “Hello,” Mom said, “She’s gone.”  My aunt let out a sigh full of pity.

My sister in law died with the best medical care in the state, but maybe not the most complete care.  It was a time when people felt censored from speaking openly about death.  It was a time when the concept and practice of hospice care was just coming out of exile.    In the western world the first hospice opened as early as the 14th century, in Europe.  Of course, people around the globe have been dying at home instead of in an institution through most of history, with family and care-giving team often one and the same.  The modern ministry known as hospice has made it natural once again to face dying and mourning with honesty, and to face it as an opportunity for growth.

Hospice teams include medical, social service and religious professionals and trained volunteers. They strive not only to ease the last few months of patients’ lives, but to help them experience as much presence, kindness, truth and love as life can hold.

I wonder how my sister in law’s family and my family might have been enriched by a more open approach when she was dying. Instead of keeping everybody apart in our separate fears and sadness, we could have invited one another to come together.

The hospice movement has made a tremendous difference in how North Americans live with loss, and live through our own dying process.  Hospice programs are sustained by voluntary donations and by government grants, in recognition that health care includes care for our experience of the end of life.   Even if we are not a client of hospice care, its philosophy has affected our medical establishment and legal system.  No longer must we expect that every effort will be made to prolong life when the prognosis is that someone will die.  No longer are so many people afraid of talking openly about the coming separation.  We have more tools and encouragement to speak about loss as it approaches, to express appreciation, regrets, and forgiveness, to say farewell and “I love you.”

Of course, many of us die unexpectedly from an accident or murder or another violent cause, or from a sudden health crisis.  But many of us have a slow decline into death.  If this is how my death will occur, I hope to benefit from hospice care when my time comes.  The humorist Woody Allen says:  “I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”  Thanks to the hospice movement, more people have more courage to be closer to death when it happens, at our own passing or in losing a loved one.

Orson Scott Card is a contemporary science fiction writer.  In his short story Mortal Gods, space aliens have come to earth.  They have established themselves in American cities as friendly neighbors. They build homes that look like houses of worship—temples, churches, mosques.  The aliens, however, are not human-like at all.  They are slithering green blobs that look like bunches of seaweed. These smart aliens inform humans that it’s not feasible for us humans to visit any planet with life on it, as getting to the closest one would take 500 years.  That’s how long it took the aliens, and the reason they could make it here is that they never die.  They are immortal.

The aliens meet an old man, a human one, and they explain their observations of us.  When human beings die, we leave behind the things we have created, built, given away.  The aliens, on the other hand, must endure the decline and loss of everything they create and give.  Nothing they build can outlast them.  For this reason, they worship human beings.  To these alien observers, because we are not immortal, we are worthy of worship.  Death causes us to fear, but it gives them cause to revere our lives.

Even though you and I are not slithering green bunches of seaweed, we can learn from them, from those long-lived aliens.  We can praise and honor human life precisely because it is going to end.  We can affirm life, even in the face of death and even with the knowledge that we will lose what we love.  We can affirm life by going places in our world, communities, relationships and our hearts where life is not fun or clean or easy.

As the Dalai Lama writes: “No matter what is going on,” the opportunity remains to “develop the heart.”  Every day holds opportunities to develop the heart, pay attention, listen to life, listen to others, show kindness.  Every day is a new chance to be generous, and to speak with courage, honesty and love.  Life continues to offer such opportunities, both in the fullness of health and in those times when we face the end of life or the loss of another person.

We are all bound together–all of us–in the common experience of being alive, and knowing that each one of us will die, and having to make some response to this reality.   Let our response be that of coming together across the gaps of grief, uncertainty, or fear.

By coming together we affirm that we are connected.  Connected to one another and to all those beyond these walls, those living on this earth, those who are gone, and those who are here after us.

Together, let us rely on the power of love to help us face mortality with grace and embrace life with gratitude.  Together, may we strive to live with honesty, generosity, kindness and courage.

So may we live.  So may it be.  Amen and blessed be.

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