On Death, Dying and Ending Well

Grandma Lois and I

Grandma Lois and I

I’m quite fortunate in that I have a job where I can pack up my stuff and work from most anywhere when my students aren’t in session. I was planning on driving back to my folks place in Wisconsin on Friday, until I got home and my housemate told me that if I was considering leaving on Friday I should surely reconsider. The snow was a-coming, and blowing pretty hard.

So in the time it took to get a couple of loads of laundry done, I packed up and headed north trying to beat the snow. I succeeded.

My reason for going back to Wisconsin: my Grandma Lois has terminal cancer. She and my Grandpa have lived in my hometown over the past 13 years after living in 4 countries and 15 cities throughout their life. If Grandma had her way, she would have moved to be with her grandchildren years before, but such wasn’t the case.

Americans seem to have a hard time with death. Other cultures seem to embrace it – we don’t. I was invited to share about Dia de los Muertos by a joint programming endeavor with La Fe (InterVarsity’s Latino Fellowship), Sheil Catholic Center, and the Department of Hispanic Student Affairs at the end of October for Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

(Does anyone else find it completely ironic that an evangelical white dude from southern rural Wisconsin was invited to speak at a Latino Catholic celebration? I do.)

Little did I know that the preparations I made would be for me more than anyone. I began to think of those in my life who would likely be passing to be at Jesus’ side. I grew up with a lot of “grandmas and grandpas” in my upbringing. I realized that in the next five years, I will probably be seeing the last of a generation that formed me.

Death is something we don’t like talking about in America. We hire people to prepare the dead when most cultures do it themselves. I wonder why that is. Any thoughts on why we are phobic of death?

As I’ve been sitting with Grandma, sharing stories over the last few days, I realize what a great treasure a life well lived is. I know very few folks who have “ended well” – whether it be in a job, a career, or a life.

Grandma Lois is ending well. We sat at her place for lunch, and she was still the consummate hostess, ensuring that we all had everything we needed. As I put my last bite of soup in my mouth, she asked if I wanted more. The woman can’t even stand, and she still is looking out for her grandchildren. A lump rose to my throat, and I told her I would love some more. She said, “Well, I’d get it for you, but i just can’t get up right now.” “I know, Grandma, that’s OK.”

We sit together and still laugh, cry, share secrets, and sometimes are just quiet as she holds my hand. There is something absolutely beautiful about a life well lived that is ending well – and for those those of us who are still called to press on, we need models of folks who have fought the good fight and finish the race. Because far too many don’t.

Grandma Lois is one of them. I’m proud to be her grandson, and hope I end well as she is.

4 Responses to “On Death, Dying and Ending Well”

  1. 1 Robert December 23, 2008 at 6:48 pm

    I think that our aversion to the process of death is related to many things in our society. Almost everything is sanitized and cleaned so we don’t have to do any dirty work. Who buys a whole chicken when you just want the boneless, skinless breast? In a lot of countries life is hard and death is very real part of that. In most of the world families live together, generations under the same roof.

    I think part of this santized and compartmentalized phenomenon is related to what most people left to come here and what they were trying to achieve. They came from places that were hard and gritty, life here is supposed to be clean and happy. Everyone gets their own private space. While this is good, in the extreme it can leave you disconnected missing out on some really great parts. If your Thanksgiving turkey came as a boneless, skinless breast who would get the wishbone?

    I have gotten a little off track here. Maybe I can summarize, our parents or grandparents or whomever moved here to get away from less than good things. They worked hard to make sure that we did not experience those bad things, but in doing so we are moving towards a society that doesn’t acknowledge that there are some thing that you can not make go away. Everyone dies, so you had better make your time worthwhile and be sure that the people you care about know that.

    I don’t know if it a sign of getting older or going through the time in my life you are entering (the older members of my family passing), but I think about it much more in the last few years than I did previously. It is scary and exciting at the same time. Life is a beautifully fragile thing that is a miracle because it even exists and at the same time is so hard to get rid of. I find myself making more decisions from the deathbed – if I am lying there and had not done (insert thing here) will I be regretting it? I don’t know if that is good or bad yet…

  2. 2 Mary Deeley December 23, 2008 at 7:20 pm

    Hi, Andy

    I wanted to let you know that I will keep you and your grandmother in my prayers this Christmas season. Dying and rising is so much a part of our lives. It is a privilege to have loved ones to accompany that journey. May her passing and His coming both be a source of deep peace and inspiration.

    Mary (from Sheil)

  3. 3 andybilhorn December 23, 2008 at 11:09 pm

    Thanks so much Mary – I appreciate your prayers during htis time.

    Good insights, Rob. Leave it to you to make a food analogy with you. 🙂 (BTW, your deep fryer is getting some use)

    But the more I leave the country, the more I realize how different we Americans are. Death seems to bring up more stuff for Americans than most. When I was in Cairo in Mokattam, the widows would wear black for the rest of their lives after their husband’s death. And mourning was real for them – it was totally acceptable. It would be considered deranged here.

  4. 4 Robert December 24, 2008 at 4:26 pm

    The circle of life! Glad it found a good home.

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December 2008

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