Death and Dying

Lamentations

One definition for "death" is to become senseless, to lose one’s bearings. In Claribel Alegrfa’s Sorrow—her first collection of poems since her husband, Darwin Flakoll, died in 1995—she unearths the many ways one becomes lost when the bonds of love are loosed by death.

Death is something we all share, and yet often don’t share enough. Sorrow is a good companion for those walking in the darkened valley. The poems are short and simple, and they move at the pace of the human heart—from the companionship of absence to the desperate desire to rearrange time. Alegrfa rails against becoming a "king of desolate lands." She begs not to be left with only a ghost, "it’s you/you I love/the light in your eyes/in mine/your lips naming me." As translator Carolyn ForchT puts it, Alegrfa makes her way through this passage of grief by "seizing hold of the beloved’s light."

Employing the Greek myths, Alegrfa explores that twilight land between the living and the dead. In "The Lamentation of Ariadne," she begs her lost Theseus to seize the golden thread of her love and return to her. "Hermes" reveals the way Alegrfa’s wedding ring becomes a winged messenger. The unpredictable nature of grief is poignantly portrayed when Sisyphus is sent tumbling back to the mountain’s base, not by a boulder, but by a grain of sand.

Alegria is best known for her book Sobrevivo ("I Survive"), which received the Casa de las Americas poetry prize in 1978. Her themes are love poems to the land and people of El Salvador—where she grew up—and testimony to Latin America’s tortured and disappeared.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2000
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Tears of Sorrow and Joy

Just over 18 months ago, my mother was dancing at my wedding. Only a month later, my mom discovered that she had cancer of the abdominal lining. Thus began a long battle, fighting the disease with a combination of conventional surgery and chemotherapy, and alternative treatments of vitamins, serums, and an extremely healthy diet. At one point she was drinking so much organic carrot juice that she turned orange!

Learning that my wife, Joy, was pregnant (with our first child), seemed to give my mom added incentive to survive and even to get better. After Luke arrived, my mother was absolutely thrilled to get to know our new son, her 13th grandchild. I never saw her happier as she held Luke in her lap, and he gave her all those smiles of his. Then, she got very excited to learn that her youngest daughter, Marcie, was expecting a baby the day before her 75th birthday in May. On she battled, looking more and more healthy after each setback.

But on April 30, I got a call from my brother, Bill, in Detroit. My mom had collapsed at home. She had an infection in her bloodstream. Four out of five cancer patients die from something other than cancer, due to how much the body has been weakened. The doctors and my dad seemed optimistic at first; she had always pulled through before. But three days later we got another call. My dad’s voice sounded emotional and scared, "You’d better come." We did and were there in just hours. The doctors feared she might not live through the night. When my sister and I arrived at our mother’s bedside that evening, the first thing she said was to ask my dad if he had got fresh milk for us back at the house, and whether everyone had a bed with clean sheets. Some things never change.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1999
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Grace that Transforms

Elizabeth Davis Hinshaw, a widow with two children, and Browne Barr, a widower with two children, were married in the summer of 1957. Two people from very different cultures and theological traditions made a covenant to be faithful to each other and began the painful and joyful task of becoming one in flesh and spirit.

After a move to Berkeley, California, when Barr received a call to become minister of First Congregational Church (and later dean of San Francisco Theological Seminary), the couple moved to their retirement home in the Napa Valley, where they expected to remodel their home, become active in an intergenerational community, and sail leisurely on a freighter ship to Asia.

Their plans were brought to naught a few months into retirement when Hinshaw was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and given two years to live. To the challenge of adjusting to retired life was added the burden of finding meaning and purpose in Elizabeth’s imminent death. Through their becoming more honest with and open to each other, with the support of their community, and by the grace of God, Hinshaw and Barr were granted six years to transform "a beleaguered marriage rocked by illness and conflict and disappointment" into a deeply mature relationship with a beauty and a "special glory all its own." Never Too Late to be Loved is Barr’s compelling story of their final pain- and joy-filled years together and his meditation on the theological meaning of their experiences for themselves and their supportive community.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1999
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To Triumph Over Despair

It is often assumed that younger people have no respect for their elders and even less reverence for history. While people in their 20s now may be as suspicious of institutions as their baby boomer counterparts were 25 years ago, my experience has been that there is in fact a healthy respect for individuals who have lived more than we, particularly those who experienced the hardships of depression and war.

We know that the particular social and economic challenges of our times are different, but the basic emotional fortitude needed to survive is not. We are familiar with despair, and so we are grateful for generations that have shown us how to move through life gracefully, how to live for the good of future generations, how to persevere in the face of trouble, and how to live and die with dignity.

In my congregation of mostly younger people, we tend to focus more on the spiritual challenges of this life than the rewards of heaven. Promises of eternal bliss fall on deaf ears for those who think they have 50 or 60 years of misery until then. Nevertheless, we are not as disinterested in the hereafter as one might assume. In my senior year of college, no fewer than five classmates lost a parent. AIDS has been a reality as long as we've been adults, and cancer rates for younger people appear to be rising. Death is no stranger to us, even if few of us expect to meet it any time soon.

WHEN PEOPLE BEGIN TO share stories of death, we of course remember grandparents, uncles, and friends who lived full and productive lives. But there is another group of stories that inevitably come out—the stories of those whose deaths were untimely and ungraceful: the high school friend who ate so little that her heart gave out; the buddy who drank so much that his liver failed; the college classmate who thought it better to swallow a cabinet full of pills than to face the next day.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1999
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The Passing of a Leader

Traveling across the country during the 1996 Presidential campaign, I saw almost no yard signs or bumper stickers with the names of the presidential nominees on them. Exit polls showed that the clear majority of the 48 percent turnout had little enthusiasm for either choice. Even the candidates' most partisan supporters would never have suggested that Bill Clinton or Bob Dole possessed the qualities of a great leader.

But about 10 days after the lackluster election, we witnessed a dramatically different and rather amazing drama unfolding in Chicago. After a six-month vigil with lethal cancer, Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin died. The thousands of people who lined up for days to say goodbye to the beloved Catholic prelate went far beyond the confines of his own church to include virtually every religious tradition in the city, and many who claimed no religion at all. His brother bishops, meeting in Washington, D.C., left his chair empty and halfheartedly carried on their business without the one who was at the same time the most influential bishop in the country and the one who had showed the most capacity to bring them together.

The nation mourned the passing of a man who was something very rare in both church and state today—a leader. It is worth reflecting on the qualities of leadership that Joseph Bernardin exemplified.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1997
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Grief in Community

"The door is locked! Why won't they unlock the door and let me in?" Peter was dying of prostate cancer, but the "door" was closed to him.

Fortunately, the hospice social worker understood the symbolic language of the dying. She gathered the family and friends who were immediately present and simply noted: "Peter is very near death, but there is something holding him here, and it sounds to me like someone has not given Peter permission to die. That needs to happen so Peter can let go to travel on to meet his God."

The youngest son emerged from the group discussion, went into the bedroom, and gave his father permission to die. Within a few hours, Peter went through the door!

Murray Trelease has noted in his work with natives of Alaska that "community is the key to the liberation of the dying" (found in On Life After Death, by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross). That was certainly true for Peter. It is true for so many who have the opportunity to make a gradual exit from this life. But I believe it is equally true for those who are left on the sidelines-the bereaved. At least it was and is true for me.

As my wife, Dawn, was going through the difficult process of decline in health, diagnosis of cancer, the many futile treatments, and the wait for her own door to open, it was the community that provided the key to liberation for both of us. We had been meeting with our Christian Life Community, Siloam, every two weeks for six years. While their very existence was an important support to us, their agenda came to include the specific question of "how are you doing with it all?" The "it" could include anything from one of the many pending surgeries or treatments, the decision to do no more, the funeral plans....

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1995
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To the Limits of Our Faith

TO PRAY FOR HEALING is to risk an encounter with the living water of God's transforming love, not knowing if it will come in a gentle stream or a tidal wave. The Israelites' demand for water in the Old Testament (Exodus 17:1-7) and Jesus' conversation with the woman at the well in the New Testament (John 4:5-26) suggest two different ways to pray for healing for ourselves and for our loved ones.

In cautious prayer, we define the healing and put God to the test. In bold, courageous prayer of faith, we allow God to define the healing and ourselves to be changed by our encounter with God.

Usually our prayers for healing are not exclusively one or the other, but a combination of both or a vacillation between the two. It is easier to understand the difference if we look at them one at a time. First are some observations on cautious prayer for healing.

Faith in God is never easy, but it sure is easier when everything is going well. When things are not going our way, faith is so much harder. When we thirst, like the Israelites wandering in the desert, we want to put God to the test. When we thirst for justice, for renewed strength, or for healing for ourselves or a loved one, we grumble among ourselves, like the Israelites, "Is the Lord among us or not?" (Exodus 17:7).

In our suffering and anguish, we want relief, we want things to be different, we want a cure, we want healing according to our definition. It is natural to pray, "Loving God, prove that you are with us, that you are our God, that you hear our cry and you care. Prove this by meeting our heart's desire. Answer our prayer, meet our demands, fulfill our hopes, and we will be reassured that you are a powerful God and you are with us."

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1995
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The Grace to be Loved

Ginny Earnest, a member of Circle Community Church in Mt. Rainier, Maryland, and a former member of Sojourners Community in Washington, D.C., died of cancer on September 9, 1993, at the age of 41. In the midst of her struggle with the disease, she preached this sermon at a Circle Community Church worship service on May 18, 1993. Two memories dedicated to her have appeared in Sojourners (a column, "A Sacrament of Healing," December 1993, by Jim Wallis; and a poem, "At The Landing," September-October 1994, by Rose Marie Berger). -The Editors

I DON'T KNOW A WHOLE LOT about healing-maybe five or 10 years from now when I've had more time to reflect and get wiser, I'll have a better understanding of it. I would like to share my experience from the last six months, and hope that will be beneficial for me and, in the process, for other people.

I've realized that in the moment when a doctor that I had only met the day before stood at the foot of my bed and said I had cancer, everything changed for me. But, in a real way, nothing changed. What I mean by that is I responded to cancer in a way that is consistent with all of the limitations and all of the gifts that have been part of my adult life.

I think the main thing that's changed for me is what I would call the loss of innocence. In a moment the things that I had thought about philosophically all my adult life, such as the fact that we ultimately don't have control, that we're vulnerable, that the world's not a safe place, that we're mortal; those kinds of ideas stopped being just philosophical musings and became the gut reality of my life. I needed to deal with the fact that I had a deadly disease, and I could die.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1995
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