Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Life Before Death

I face death each and every day. This morning, my day began with stroking the hair of a woman who was dying all alone, unresponsive to words but able to be soothed by human touch. Later, I gathered with a large, boisterous family as they laughed and told stories of their loved one, who left life amidst the merriment and celebration of his many years. I held the hand of a young bride as she gave the word to "go ahead" and withdraw the machine that were no longer supporting her new husband's life but prolonging his death.

You ask me how I can do my job, with death and dying confronting me all day long. You may assume it's a heavy burden. Grief is heavy. Pain and suffering, they can be tremendous burdens. But death, in and of itself, is not such a heavy load.

Death is very real. It's all around us. It's the only certainty we have in life - we will die. Denying this reality, I imagine that could be a laborious task. But I can't do that. Mortality is all to present for me, as I hold the hand of a dying patient as she takes her last breath,or embrace a grieving loved one in my arms.

As I watch people die, I realize that, in many cases, we die as we have lived. If we live life in fear, we die fearful. If we live life in anger, we die angry. If we live life in meaningful relationships and connected to loved ones, we end life loved.

You ask if I believe in life after death. I know for many people, the hope of an afterlife, the idea that somehow, in someway, they continue (or that they will be reunited with loved ones) gives them comfort and peace. I also see that for others, the threat of eternal damnation means they spend their lives afraid.

You ask if I believe in life after death. I am avoiding your questions, I know. [we chaplains are trained to deflect]

You ask if I believe in life after death. Well, no. But I don't necessarily disbelieve it. I just don't think it really matters for me.

You ask if I hope that there is more than this life. Well, no. This life, lived well, is all I could ask for. And it is my desire and my calling and my hope to live the best life I can: to be in healthy relationships, to care for others, to work for peace, to create beauty, to make love, to learn, to grow, to laugh, to live...

You ask what I do believe in. And that's easy. I believe in life. Maybe not life after death. But certainly life before death. What about you?

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