In the past year Kay and I have lost eight good companions who have moved on to a better place and left us here trying to learn how to cope with losing them.
These were friends we walked with in different places and different times as we learned from each other how to follow Jesus, love one another, and care for others. And there are quite a few others who we have lost in the years previous to this one.
A while back, Frank Consalvo asked me what I was learning in this phase of my life about losing ones we love. He thought it would be helpful to note some of the thoughts I have received from the Lord and other people – so here are some of them. There are certainly a lot more things that I have to learn about this and one of the reasons for jotting down these ideas is to receive more and better ideas from my friends who read this.
Anyone who knows us also knows that this is not an attempt on our part to tell anyone else what they should think or feel as they face this issue. But perhaps some of these ideas will also resonate with others. And more than likely those reading this will have insights that will be helpful for us as we continue to process this phase of our lives.
Kay and I have been physically close enough to watch some of these friends as they have finished well. And we have heard much about the others as their loved ones have walked with them in their final days.
A couple quotes describe how well those leaving us have done this:
“Those who enjoy life most, strangely enough, seem to let go of it with the most grace. Every moment of life, including the final one, is a gift—a chance to appreciate, to grow, to connect, and to give back.” ~ William Falk
“This is how to grow old. Allow everything else to fall away until those around you see only love.” ~ The Me I Want to be by John Ortberg
I am not sure how our friends were able to do this in their final days. I would like it to be true for me as well. Perhaps it has to do with no longer seeking and grasping things like material goods, praise from others, or any other kind of accomplishment.
The Apostle Paul wrote that he learned how to be content. What is the secret of learning how to be content? Ruth Halley Barton wrote that Moses learned to be content when he grasped that the presence of God was the Promised Land. All the “Promised Lands: we seek pale in comparison to the presence of God in our lives. These other things we seek fade in importance when we experience more deeply the presence of God.
Another thing I have observed in those who finish well is that they stayed involved in the lives of others – even when strength and energy are lessened. When I look back over my years I know that my enjoyment of life – yes, I can even say my joy in life – has come as a result of caring more about others than I do myself. So why wouldn’t that be important right through to the end of my life? I may get “tired” in the process of loving and caring for others, but I don’t want to “retire” from it.
Another insight that has been helpful to Kay and to me: At the memorial service for Mary Jane Dellenback, her grandson, Jess, made a comment that was both insightful and profound. In essence, he said to the two hundred or so of us who had gathered, “I don’t know most of you but you are here because you knew my grandmother well. Your presence in her life helped her become who she was. Who she was has become part of my life. So in a way I am connected to all of you because of your influence in her life and because of her love and care for me.”
I used to think “We get them back” when the pain of loss diminishes and the good and sweet memories remind us of how special were the days we shared together on earth. Actually, we never lose them because as Jess pointed out they are part of our lives in all the ways their love and care for us has shaped who we are. What we get back over time is a greater awareness of the ways they have shaped us for the better. Many times over the years of lost companions I have thought: “that’s a John thought,” or “Bill would have done it this way.” Or “Tellelyn would have brought gentle love to that needy (somewhat obnoxious) person.”
Kay and I recently watched the four hour documentary of the life of Jackie Robinson. It was a wonderful story, not only of baseball and the impact he had on the civil rights movement, but also of the deep love that he and his wife Rachel shared. When he died of a heart attack at age 53 her loss was profound. At the end of the documentary she was recorded as saying, I miss him so much. I miss the freedom we had to talk about everything together – even hard things – with an ease and completeness. And I miss his arm around me. He was so expressive.
We have yet to experience the loss of a spouse, or a child, or a grandchild. As we have walked with others who have gone through this we know that this is a pain that is far greater than anything we have yet experienced. Years ago, Roy Thompson was talking about the loss of his son when his son was 26 years old. I mentioned this in an earlier posting, but Roy’s insight bears repeating. He said: “It’s like losing your arm. You learn to function without it but you are always aware of your loss.” And as special friends have left us we miss their physical presence. To not see them, or hug them, or to hear their voice is like losing part of who we are. It does help to realize that because of the history of our deep friendship they are imbedded in our lives and they are still helping us become who God wants us to be.
This is a thought that also helps when walking with friends with memory loss. My initial desire was to try to help them remember – to get them to say things right so we could get back to what we had experienced in our companionship. But as I am learning to value all they have been to me in our past friendship I don’t have the need to try to drag them back into that time. I can enjoy the memory of all we have had in the past and I can love them and respond to them even in this murky world that makes little sense to either of us.
And it has also been a way to value those friends who are in different parts of the world who we seldom see — in fact, since they are in different parts of North America, in Europe, and in several countries in Africa the probability is that many of them we may not ever see again. But even as we can celebrate that because of what we have shared with each other in the past we also are still imbedded in each others lives helping us to become who God wants us to be.
I have also seen that what Paul wrote to his friends in Philippi, “I long to depart and to be with Christ, which is better by far” rings with truth. Kay and I saw it in the passing of our long-time friend, Edna Kenagy. At 98, her ability to engage with the world around her was diminished and she was ready to move on. When her daughter, Darlene, called to tell us that Edna had passed a couple days after we were with her my response was: “Yay!” because I knew that was her desire. So I am learning that we can celebrate both the life of our friends, but we can also celebrate their death – which is the grace of God that frees them from the struggles, pain, and disappointments of this world. This is a pretty new thought and I am still pondering what it means to celebrate the death of one we love.
As Kay and I have discussed our own passing the following quote says well what we desire:
“It ought to be possible to talk with one another about how we want to live when we are dying. It ought to be possible to resist the temptation to make an idol of medicine, and instead to recognize it as a useful tool, sometimes for cure, always for care. The vast majority of people want to be at home; in the company of people they know and are known by. They want access to hospice and palliative care. They want to have their dignity respected and their pain controlled. They want to cherish the time they have left and devote it to people and to experiences that are meaningful to them. It ought to be possible to die well.” ~ Margaret Kim Peterson in September-October, 2015 Covenant Companion
What are you learning in this life transition that we all deal with from various perspectives?