Earlier this year, Alison and Stefan gave me a gift subscription to an online service called StoryWorth. I receive a question once a week and am invited to answer it. At some point in the future, StoryWorth’s algorithms will assemble my answers into a book. The intention is that my grandchildren will have an autobiographical story book by which to know me better.
After our October 20 consultation with our oncologist, I wrote the following chapter on Death and Dying. It contains nothing new. After all, people have been pondering and writing about death and dying almost since the dawn of writing. It is a theme traceable in the story of Gilgamesh. But the essay consolidates several consistent threads in what I hope is a useful way, even for readers of these blog posts.
My grandchildren know me as “Dziadzio” (Polish, for “Grandfather”), except for Theo, who has personalized it by his endearing “Dziadz”. That will explain the StoryWorth-like opening question.
What’s it like, “Dziadz”, to know you are dying?
Living in God’s created world we are embraced by Life. The embrace comes from what we call “Nature.” Nature is beautiful. It is—in the correct usage of the word—awesome. The first way we get to know about Nature is through our observation and experience of it. We can also study it. Learning what we can about life and death, we learn that dying is a necessary part of living.
We call things that are living, sentient. All sentient life on Earth proceeds through a predictable pattern: birth, development, nourishment and growth. Following that are periods focused on reproduction and maturity. Then sentient beings go into decline and eventually die. This pattern is the same for Mayflies that live for only 24-hours, tortoises and some whales who live over a hundred years, and for trees that can live thousands of years. The same for all sentient beings.
One way scientists describe this pattern is by having analyzed the components that constitute life. What are the materials of life and how do they all work together? Scientists who have become knowledgeable in different fields are comparing notes. They are biologists, chemists, physicists, agronomists, nutritionists; people who have studied sentient life from many different perspectives. They have learned that when we die, every bit of the material from which we are made is broken down and returned to the Earth. There, those elements are recycled and again made available to Nature. The selfsame ingredients that we are made of can be reconstituted into other forms of sentient life. Life on Earth, scientists explain, depends upon the recycling of the ingredients from which we are made. Some people call this “conservation of Nature.” Other people simply observe that Life depends on Death.
From this perspective my approaching death is simply expected by Nature. It is built-in as part of God’s plan whether or not we completely understand God’s plan.
Elsewhere I’ve written about what I’ve learned about the “cycle of reciprocity”. The cycle of reciprocity is a recurring cycle in what is called “the gift economy.” It is based on the realization that all sentient life depends upon nutrients, shelter, and unique elements provided freely by God’s natural environment. Sentient beings survive because of the surrounding environment that is freely given them. Because these life-giving and life-sustaining gifts are freely given and received, sentient beings are obligated, by justice, to give back (to reciprocate) by giving their unique gifts to the needs of the world. Robin Wall Kimmerer describes the cycle of reciprocity better than I ever could do. I’ve quoted an extensive part of one of her essays in a footnote.1 Don’t think that since her words are in a footnote, they’re not worth reading. They are.
It is all too possible for us humans to be selfish and greedy and to take more than our share… of food, of water, of medicines, even of the very air we breathe. But it is also possible for us to be creative, inventive, and protective of the Earth’s resources. We can contribute our own special gifts to the study of God’s bounty. We are continually understanding more about the unique nature of every form of sentient life. God has given sentient life an important role in the health of the Earth. God has given each of us a unique role, too.
We have the capacity to honor the life God has created for us to share. We can contribute what no other sentient life can contribute to life’s flourishing. Just as we benefit from what is given us from Nature. That’s our obligation in the cycle of reciprocity… to give of our uniqueness; to help fulfill God’s plan on this Earth. We have a finite lifetime within which to do that.
My death is the terminus of my finite lifetime. But I have tried to discover and live out my role as best I can.
Human beings are more than only the materials from which they are put together. This is a mystery humans have pondered throughout history. In addition to our physical, corporeal selves, we also have consciousness, self-awareness, empathy, judgement, conscience, morality, will. Scientists have attempted to explain these qualities as functions of chemistry, social dynamics, and the interaction of materials of which we are made. But it has proven to be an insurmountable task.
We have a spiritual life that animates our virtues (and our vices). We have an awareness of our Creator and our relationship to God. We have unique personalities. We are individually more or less successful in knowing who we are and understanding why we are here. And our Will is more or less successful in honoring Life. People have named this bundle of more-than-material characteristics, a soul.
The soul is a profound mystery of life. Scientists cannot explain it. The spiritual dimension is revealed by priests, shamans, and medicine women. Some people claim that as materialism has dominated scientific studies, we’ve lost the capacity to recognize and care for the spiritual in our lives. They suggest that indigenous peoples or spiritual leaders not so tainted by materialism are more sensitive to their souls. Our Church has recognized many important spiritual teachers to help us develop our spiritual lives. These women and men are called Saints. Their teachings and their lives are helpful models for our lives.
One of the startling things about our souls is that even the humblest of human beings can appreciate the beauty of God’s creation. We can experience awe in the complexity of Life simply by enjoying it with awareness. We can wonder at the grandeur of the skies. We can be surprised by our own capacity to study, understand and to know. We can be moved by loving relationships. And we can get into the habit, as often as we can, to pause and say “Thank You, God.” That’s all it takes to start an ongoing conversation with God. You can respond to God’s fathomless Creation with gratitude and love.
This second, mysterious, spiritual perspective tells us that Life is an embodiment of Love. We participate collectively and individually in something God created. We are integral to all Life. Life depends on us just as we depend on it. Finding our particular path is one of our tasks on Earth. The process is exhilarating, exciting and makes us want to sing.
For better or worse, we have but a lifetime to experience Life on this Earth. But there’s a promise that the end of this life will not mean the end of us, but a transformation of “us” into some next step, bringing us closer and in more harmony with God our Creator. Christ, himself, assured us that God the Father has prepared a “heavenly home” for us. But we don’t know any specifics.
We only know it will be good, because we’ve recognized goodness and love through our lives on Earth.
Why, then, is death so traumatic, especially for human beings? Here we begin to dig deeper in our questions about death. Really, the question is answered by considering our lives rather than be distracted by death.
Something unknown is often scary.
— Death, especially as regards our own death, is an unknown.
Sometimes death involves pain.
— Pain is definitely frightening to me.
But death is seldom an experience people undergo alone. Even if death comes to us when we are alone, physically, we are not alone spiritually. This is part of the material / spiritual understanding. We can be physically alone when we die, but God is always present. The Saints from whom we may have received guidance or inspiration will be with us. All our lives we have created bonds with our families and friends. We preserve memories of people who have been important in our lives; whom we have loved and who have loved us. They will always be a part of who we are, even at the moment of our death.
We retain hurts, too; things that we’ve promised, but have left undone. We may have hurt someone to whom we have not made sufficient reparation for the hurt, conscious or un-. We might have unresolved issues; things we haven’t talked about, or misunderstood, or simply feel uncomfortable about. All these come into sharper focus as we approach a moment in time after which there is no further opportunity to settle unresolved or out of balance relationships. Time running out is frightening.
What we carry with us at the moment of our death makes us want to have lived our lives in a way that was always honorable and loving. Thinking about death, as we are here, makes us desire to approach death free of the chains of regret and full of joyful memories and experiences. At the point of death, there’s little possibility to do things over. That may be a part of why we fear death. Even if, on balance, we think we’ve been “more good than bad”, our failings seem more clear to us. They certainly do to me. Paradoxically, I think this feeling of regret is part of the curriculum of my growth during this life.
Thinking ahead to my death spurs me both to pray, “Thank You, God.” And also to pray, “I am sorry for the pains I may have caused. I am sorry for the things I have not done. Please forgive me.”
I am glad to have a merciful Father awaiting me after this death.
We are empathetic beings. We can imagine how sad will be the people whom we love when we are no longer here. Just imagine if you were not here, how sad would be your Mom. How she would cry. If some people have come to rely on us for physical or spiritual support, we can imagine how much more difficult or lonely their life is likely to be with us gone. Our empathy makes us sad.
Similarly, we can empathize with the dying person. We may wish to relieve the burden of the person dying. This is a natural instinct built into us over a lifetime. We want to help those in pain, or in fear, or in trauma. I don’t think it is entirely possible. Yet being with someone dying is truly a gift both to the person dying, and a gift to the persons attending a death.
Curiously, such are the real bonds between people, that physical presence is incidental.
When my Dad died, I was enjoying a picnic. We didn’t have cell phones at the time. It took some hours before someone found me to tell me my Tata had died. I immediately felt guilty that I’d been enjoying the sunshine and the trees and the grass of the park while my Tata had been experiencing death in his workshop. I felt terrible that Mama had been experiencing her grief alone.
I was able to go to the City Morgue where they had brought my Dad’s body. I was able to sit with him, alone, and hold his hand. I prayed for him, for the mystery that he was entering into. I prayed in thanksgiving for what he had been to me. I thanked him. I thanked God that, of all the fathers I could have had, God gave me the perfect one.
Having, maybe, learned from that sudden and unexpected death of my Father, I adopted a different habit with my Mom. You can start making this your habit, too.
Years before Mama died, when we celebrated a family event, or when I shared lunch with her, just the two of us; when it was over and we were about to depart, the habit fell into place. I would pause to mentally consider that this might be the last time I ever saw Mama alive. I didn’t want the last time to be sitting next to her body on a bier. So I would imprint on my mind the impression of Mama at just that good moment, thinking it could possibly be the last time I saw her alive.
When we were on holiday in England, just having arrived in the City of Bath, we received an urgent call from Wandzia and Marsha to tell us Mama had died. Bath was a long way away from home. But I didn’t feel guilty being on vacation. I remembered Mama as I’d last seen her. I was able to send my thoughts and prayers from England. After all, what difference did it make to a loving God, or to a lifelong loving Mama, from whence my prayers were lifting?
There’s another consideration about my death that merits exploring, even though—particularly because of the coronavirus pandemic—I can’t predict how my funeral will actually turn out.
The momentous events in our lives are few. One is being born, as a physical fact of creation. Another is receiving the Sacraments, as tangible evidence of entry into the spiritual dimension of our lives. A third is graduation, as confirming our step-by-step mastery of the life of the mind. Yet another is marriage, signifying not only independence, but trust in a partner with whom to better confront the questions of life. It could be a comitment to a particular life, as in people who decide to join a religious order or enter the monastic life. Each of these momentous events are celebrated, liturgically, by our Church. Our Catholic Church is, itself, an earthly embodiment of the Heaven that awaits us after Death.
As a faith community, our parish of St. Mary Magdalen is one in which I have prayed together with other parishioners. We have cheered one another, seen our families and children grow, shared pains, studied together, sang songs of praise together, and learned to love together. We’ve celebrated our share of funerals together, too.
The best of all these events have two constant components.
The first is the contextualization provided by the Church’s liturgies and Sacraments. They remind us that our earthly experiences have meaning because of our spiritual dimension. We can be tricked into thinking that ourlives and or our needs or our feelings are central. They are not. God’s plan for Creation is central. Our role, important as it may be to us, is secondary. The Church’s ministries keep us from a dangerous self-aggrandizement.
The second component is our community experience. Parishioners help one another discover and recognize each person’s proper role in relation to God’s plan through sharing. To have a member of a community die is for the community to sustain a loss. Just as in a family, the community’s loss needs to be acknowledged, mourned and celebrated. Death is not only in the “natural order of things” but it is part of God’s plan for creation, carrying with it the promise of a life to come and the family and the community deserves to experience that truth in its fullness. I am reminded of the words from Ecclesiastics as interpreted in Pete Seeger’s song, To Everything There Is a Time:
To every thing there is a season,
— and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
— a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
— a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
— a time to mourn, and a time to dance; …..
The coronavirus we are experiencing, makes gatherings dangerous in our Mission-style Church. People are correctly cautious about traveling. We know of all too many people who have died from the virus trapped in the isolation of their makeshift Covid ICU bed. So the question is “In the time of a pandemic, how does a community acknowledge and mourn the passing of one of its long-time members?”
The answer may be that the funeral take place outside, where mourners can observe safe social distancing. Outside funerals can be situated in our parish’s “Dominican Garden” or at the gravesite at Gate of Heaven cemetery where my Mama and Tata lie. Technology allows us to stream the proceedings for those who may live too far away to be present for the funeral here. Our Polish family and friends can be invited to participate through technology.
The reception may have to be postponed until a time when we have more control over possible infection from the coronavirus. Nothing requires a celebration of life to be coincident with the passing of that life.
What is important, I think, is for a community to eventually have space and occasion in which to mingle and to talk; to reminisce and to tell stories; to laugh as well as to cry. Endowed as we have been, with an elaborate emotional sensibility, we should employ those emotions (combined with our intellects and our spiritual insights) to properly place into context that our Deaths ultimately bring us Life in manifold ways.
1 From Kimmerer, Robin Wall, Braiding Sweetgrass, ISBN-10 : 1571313567, ISBN-13 : 978-1571313560
In Potowatomi, the strawberry is ode min, the heart berry. We recognize them as the leaders of the berries, the first to bear fruit.
Strawberries first shaped my view of a world full of gifts simply scattered at your feet. A gift comes to you through no action of your own, free, having moved toward you without your beckoning. It is not a reward; you cannot earn it, or call it to you, or even deserve it. And yet it appears. Your only role is to be open-eyed and present. Gifts exist in a realm of humility and mystery—as with random acts of kindness, we do not know their source.
Those fields of my childhood showered us with strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, hickory nuts in the fall, bouquets of wildflowers brought to my Mom, and family walks on Sunday afternoon. They were our playground, retreat, wildlife sanctuary, ecology classroom, and the place where we learned to shoot tin cans off the stone wall. All for free. Or so I thought.
I experienced the world in that time as a gift economy, “goods and services” not purchased but received as gifts from the earth. Of course, I was blissfully unaware of how my parents must have struggled to make ends meet in the wage economy raging far from this field.
In our family, the presents we gave one another were almost always homemade. I thought that was the definition of a gift: something you made for someone else. We made all our Christmas gifts: piggy banks from old Clorox bottles, hot pads from broken clothes pins, and puppets from retired socks. My mother says it was because we had no money for store-bought presents. It didn’t seem like a hardship to me; it was something special.
My father loves wild strawberries, so for Father’s Day my mother would almost always make him strawberry shortcake. She baked the crusty shortcakes and whipped the heavy cream, but we kids were responsible for the berries. We each got an old jar or two and spent the Saturday before the celebration out in the fields, taking forever to fill them as more and more berries ended up in our mouths. Finally, we returned home and poured them out on the kitchen table to sort out the bugs. I’m sure we missed some, but Dad never mentioned the extra protein.
In fact, he thought wild strawberry shortcake was the best possible present, or so he had us convinced. It was a gift that could never be bought. As children raised by strawberries, we were probably unaware that the gift of berries was from the fields themselves, not from us. Our gift was time and attention and care and red-stained fingers. Heart berries, indeed.
Gifts from the earth or from each other establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. The field gave to us, we gave to my Dad, and we tried to give back to the strawberries. When the berry season was done, the plants would send out slender red runners to make new plants. Because I was fascinated by the way they would travel over the ground looking for good places to take root, I would weed out a little patches of bare ground where the runners touched down. Sure enough, tiny little roots would emerge from the runner and by the end of the season they were even more plants, ready to bloom under the next Strawberry Moon. No person taught us this—the strawberries showed us. Because they had given us a gift, and ongoing relationship open between us.
Farmers around us grew a lot of strawberries and frequently hired kids to pick for them. My siblings and I would ride our bikes a long way to Crandall’s Farm to pick berries to earn spending money. A dime for every quart we picked. But Mrs. Crandall was a persnickety overseer. She stood at the edge of the field in her bib apron and instructed us how to pick and warned us not to crush any berries. She had other rules, too. “These berries belong to me,” she said, “not to you. I don’t want to see you kids eating my berries.” I knew the difference: in the field behind my house the berries belonged to themselves. At this lady’s roadside stand, she sold them for sixty cents a quart.
It was quite a lesson in economics. We’d have to spend most of our wages if we wanted to ride home with berries in our bike baskets. Of course those berries were ten times bigger than our wild ones, but not nearly so good. I don’t believe we ever put those farm berries in Dad’s shortcake. It wouldn’t have felt right.
It’s funny how the nature of an object—let’s say a strawberry or a pair of socks—is so changed by the way it has come into your hands, as a gift or as a commodity. The pair of wool socks that I buy at the store, red and gray striped, are warm and cozy. I might feel grateful for the sheep that made the wool and the worker who ran the knitting machine. I hope so. But I have no inherent obligation to those socks as a commodity, as private property. There is no bond beyond the politely exchanged “thank yous” with the clerk. I have paid for them and our reciprocity ended the minute I handed her the money. The exchange ends once parity has been established, an equal exchange. They become my property. I don’t write a thank you note to JCPenney.
But what if those very same socks, red and gray striped, were knitted by my grandmother and given to me as a gift? That changes everything. That gift creates ongoing relationship. I will write a thank-you note. I will take good care of them and if I am a very gracious grandchild I will wear them when she visits even if I don’t like them. When it’s her birthday, I will surely make her a gift in return. As the scholar and writer Lewis Hyde notes, “It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people.”
Wild strawberries fit the definition of a gift, but grocery store berries do not. It’s the relationship between producer and consumer that changes everything. As a gift-thinker, I would be deeply affected if I saw a wild strawberries in the grocery store. I would want to kidnap them all. They were not meant to be sold, only to be given. Hyde reminds us that in a gift economy, one’s freely given gifts cannot be made into someone else’s capital. I can see the headline now: “Woman Arrested for Shoplifting Produce. Strawberry Liberation Front Claims Responsibility.”