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Posts Tagged ‘Dying’

So, I have another birthday coming up. This yearly event stopped meaning anything special to me years ago – somewhere after 40.  This birthday will mark my last year in the decade of the 40’s.  Next year I hit the big 5-0; that will be a much bigger deal to me.  There’s just something inauspicious about hitting and moving beyond 50.  Of course, those who have moved way beyond that mile-marker will tell me otherwise.

Believe it or not, the biggest decade markers that were downers for me were the younger ones. Turning twenty was traumatic.  Somehow, in my mind, it meant leaving “youth” and entering into “age.”  Not old-age per se, just an age where the responsibility stakes went up ten-fold in my mind.  It was, in my thinking, leaving the care-free stage of life and entering the care-burdened age.

This is one reason why I always warn my children not to worry about growing up so fast and “getting out on their own.” So far, none of them have listened to me.  I suppose it is the optimism of youth that helps us to launch into our independence.  Of course, complete and total ignorance of what really lays ahead helps too.

The other decade marker that was a downer was thirty. I was depressed for a week.  This seemed to mark me as the entrance into “old.”  All youth is gone and spent, now all that was left was aging and more burdened responsibilities.  In retrospect, however, I do have to say that my thirties were quite fun and fulfilling.  I had some real rough years closing out the decade, but for the most part they were enjoyable times.

Turning forty did not faze me all that much, for some odd-ball reason. I had some friends who made the event a lot of fun (at my expense, of course).  At the same time, there was a positive stride into the decade of the 40’s with a certain sense of maturity, wisdom and life-experience.  These have been good years with lots of good experiences.  It has held enough life adventures to keep it interesting.  So far, I think I am well on my way to fulfilling my life’s mission of “finishing strong and finishing laughing.”

This life goal or mission helps me to focus on what is important: finishing strong in my relationships with God and my family and friends and to do it all with great joy and no regrets. It is that last point that is the sticky one.  It is truly hard to finish life without any regrets so that one can end life with great joy – laughing.  Perhaps approaching the age of fifty has made me more retrospect than ever (as if I could be any more retrospect…I’m wired to be an internalizer, meditator and processor).  I had a friend tell me one time, “Boy, Ron.  The stream of thought sure runs slow through you.  But I have to say, it does run deep!”  We still laugh over that observation as there have been many funny applications to it over the years.

Tubing On Quilcene Bay, Washington, Summer 2007

Tubing On Quilcene Bay, Washington, Summer 2007

I have been witness to many people who, at the end of their life because of disease or death, spend a few moments replaying their regrets.  There seems to be a need to attempt to correct any mistakes before one leaves this life.  Sometimes, this is not always possible.  According to Bronnie Ware, an Ezinearticles.com contributor and palliative care worker, when questioned about any regrets, the dying had five common themes that surfaced again and again:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

These all strike me as having to do with my life goal to “finish strong and finish laughing.” A life well-lived and full of joy up to the end of it strikes me as something the Creator would take great pleasure in as He witnessed our leaving this world and entering the new creation He has awaiting for us.  Each of these five things recalled by Bronnie Ware reminds me that life is full of risks that present opportunities and pitfalls.  One cannot live life sheltered in hopes of coming through with no scrapes or bruises.

A couple of weeks ago, I heard a message on risk-taking. It was inspiring as well as challenging.  What would we be doing differently right now or attempting to do if we knew that we could not fail?  There lies the stuff of dreams and visions.  In the message a quote was shared:

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing!”

What a daring statement! Like me when I heard it, you are probably wondering what brave soul, perhaps famous, made such a declaration.  Our speaker pointed out some of the risk action ideas in this quote: danger, exposure, adventure or nothing!  The quote is from Helen Keller.  What a statement from a deaf, mute and blind hero for whom getting out of bed everyday was an adventure and a risk!  The speaker pointed out that, willing to do so, she changed her world as an author, activist and even lecturer!  Suddenly, I find myself in short comparison to someone born with so many “handicaps.”  Certainly, I in accompaniment with my full faculties have a long ways to go to catch up with her.

I suppose that there is no way to completely avoid end-of-life regrets. Clarity of vision seems to be the privilege of only those at the terminus of their life’s journey.  We could all stand to learn more from them.  The words of Jesus could also help to prod us: “Playing it safe and guarding your self will not help you in the end.  Only risk-taking and self-sacrifice will help you discover who you were made to be and the reward that will await you at life’s end” (my own paraphrase of Luke 9:14).

So, to “finish strong and finish laughing” is going to require more work on my part it seems. Every day as well as every decade will be an adventure.  It reminds me of Frodo‘s recollection to Samwise of Bilbo‘s wise words in The Lord of the Rings: “Remember what Bilbo used to say: ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to‘.”  Who knows what’s around the corner of 50 – or 60 or 70 for that matter.  Might as well finish them strong and laughing with no regrets.  If anything, it will leave the devil frustrated over me and my friends wondering.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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This weekend my family and I will be making a long drive to the Washington coastal community of Ocean Park for my brother’s funeral.  My brother, Bruce, died January 15th of liver failure due to alcoholism.  We will be joining my parents and my remaining siblings along with other family and friends for a memorial service for Bruce.  Even with a month to think about it, it will still be a long, 5-hour, thought-filled drive.

I have often said, when I was in pastoral leadership, that “Funerals are for the living, not the dead.”  The dead are beyond our comfort and touch.  However, those who remain behind are still present and need the comfort and touch of family and friends.  This is why many people attend funerals of family or friends they barely know but go, instead, to support their grieving family and friends.  We want to be there for them.

This is my case with my brother, Bruce.  The sad truth of our relationship as brothers is that I barely, if really at all, knew him.  Until this last Father’s Day (2009), I had not seen nor heard from Bruce for 16 years.  My two youngest children had never seen him.  I am grateful for the two days we had last year to reconnect.  It was good to see him connect with nephews and nieces he had not had any contact with for all these years.

Bruce Charles Almberg, 2009

Bruce Charles Almberg, 1964 - 2009

The reason for the lack of communication and relationship is a complicated and painful family history that I will not divulge here.  Suffice it to say that Bruce carried many personal and family wounds that made contact with his family painful if not unbearable.  Except for my mother and my sister, and even that sporadically over the years, he really did not have too much to do with any of us.  So, the opportunity to see him, talk with him, and spend time with him last year was monumental for our family.  After that holiday together, Bruce and I chatted on the phone a few times; something that we had never done before.

I left for college when I graduated from High School.  Bruce was 14 years old.  Except for a few brief stints at visiting home during college, we never had much interaction together.  Most of my knowledge of what was happening in Bruce’s life came through my mother or sister over the years.  Attempts at visiting during vacations or letters and cards were never acknowledged or answered.  However, that is not unusual behavior for Almberg males.  We would probably do well in monasteries.

So, after getting a chance to finally visit and talk with my brother, it was sad news to hear that he was admitted to the hospital on New Year’s Day 2010 with liver failure.  He was not expected to live passed the weekend.  However, he did not die until two weeks later, on the 15th, after being transferred from Good Samaritan Hospital in Portland, OR., to a nursing care facility in Longview, WA.  Those two weeks in the hospital, though very hard, was important.

During his two weeks in the hospital quite a number of people had an opportunity to pray for him, offer the hope of Christ, and share the love of God with him.  My parents believe and trust that God was able to bring peace to Bruce’s heart and soul.  As such, we are able to leave him in the arms of our Heavenly Father who is full of love, compassion, and not willing that any should perish.

Meanwhile, we will gather this Saturday, February 13th, to remember him, whether we have long-time-ago memories or recently made ones.  We will be present for one another and comfort one another, especially his wife Denise.  Afterall, while it is the dead that we commemorate, it is for the living that we gather.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Poor Job. The biblical person who suffered ever increasing tragedy until nothing was left to him but a bitter wife has come down to us as an example of human suffering and the questions that go along with it.  He lost his wealth, his children and their families, all he owned, and was plagued with disease.  As he sat in an heap of ashes allowing dogs to lick his wounds, his wife’s only counsel was to “curse God and die“.  Obviously, according to her, Job must have done something to bring down the wrath of the Almighty.

When Job’s friends hear about his plight, they mount a support group to be with Job and offer him comfort. Unfortunately, they, too, offer words that are more damning than helpful.  Their miserable efforts at help and comfort end up bringing more suffering to Job instead of relief.  In the end, Job wishes they had never come to “help”.  He would like all of them to just go back home.

We still use Job’s friends as an example for us today. Whenever people offer comfort that ends up being no real comfort at all we call these individuals “Job’s comforters”.  Instead of bringing relief, they bring only more emotional turmoil and suffering along with a sense of guilt that whatever happened was somehow the sufferers’ fault.

Broken Sand Dollar on the Beach, Gleneden Beach, Oregon

Broken Sand Dollar on the Beach, Gleneden Beach, Oregon ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

I have been to too many funerals and memorial services where well-meaning individuals have turned out to be a “Job’s comforter”. Their badly derived words of wisdom and attempts at comfort only bring greater sorrow and despair.  I cannot number the times that I have wished someone would just shut their mouth.  In fact, I have come to believe that the best thing that can be said by family and friends and well-wishers at a funeral, memorial, or graveside service is nothing!  Simply being present is a gift enough.

I have shuddered as I have heard people say:

  • “God must have needed him/her in heaven more than we did.” – to parents after the death of a child
  • “Good thing you are still young and can have more kids.” – to a young couple whose baby died of SIDS
  • “Now you have even more reason to cherish the children you still have at home.” – to a grieving mom
  • “It just wasn’t meant to be.” – to a mom whose baby died shortly after child birth!
  • “Remember, God will never give you more than you can handle.”
  • “You just keep a stiff upper lip.  You’ll be okay.” – to a grieving widow
  • “God must have a lesson for you and your family in all of this.” – after a tragic accidental death
  • “God must have known that he/she wouldn’t have been healthy.”
  • “God must have known that he/she would have trouble later and needed to go to heaven now.”
  • “Try and be strong for the other children.” – to a young teen grieving over the death of his father.
  • “He/She is in a better place.” – to a young husband whose wife died of cancer.
  • “It will get better/easier with time.” – to a grieving widow.
  • “God must have needed another angel in heaven.” – to grieving parents over the death of a young daughter
  • “You are so strong.  I know you can handle this.”
  • “I know how you feel.”
  • “Be grateful for the time you had with him/her.”
  • “At least he/she is not suffering any more.”
  • “You know that he/she would not have wanted you to feel so sad this way.”
  • “Time heals all wounds.  You will be over this someday.”
  • “Things will be back to normal before you know it.”
  • “Maybe we should have prayed more, then God would have healed him/her.”
  • “Remember, ‘all things work together for good’.”
  • “Try not to cry so much.  It upsets the kids.”

This is about the time I would like to throw out all of Job’s comforters! It seems to be a human propensity to feel the need to say something unfitting in times of mourning.  Unfortunately, the best that most can come up with is some cheesy spiritual platitude, misplaced Scriptural reference, or miserable attempt to instruct the one grieving.  This is not the time to compare tragedies, instruct in the stages of grieving, or offer spiritual counsel.  It is a time to share in the grieving – to “mourn with those who mourn“.

Mourning with those who mourn is best done by simply being present with the one grieving. This does not require words!  It can involve a loving touch on the arm or shoulder.  It may even involve a tender hug.  For the grieving person, just knowing that there are friends and family present and that they are not alone in their grieving is relief enough.

If words must be used, short statements that identify with the grief of the one mourning is the most appropriate:

  • “I am so sorry for your loss.”
  • “I do not know what to say right now except that I love you and hurt for you.”
  • “My thoughts and prayers are with you.”
  • “I sure am going to miss him/her.  I remember when he/she…” – it is okay to share short memories or impressions of the deceased if it is appropriate.
  • “I just want to be here for you right now.”
  • “My heart aches for your loss.”
  • “I cannot imagine what you are going through right now, but I want you to know I am here for you.”
  • “It is okay to cry and grieve.  He/she was loved so much and will be missed.”
  • “You do not need to say anything right now if you do not want to.  I just want to be with you.”

This does not just apply to the time immediate following a death or tragic loss. It also applies months, even years, later when the fresh wound of grief is opened by a memory.  Such a person’s loss is never fully healed.  The pain of it will always be present.  To avoid becoming a Job’s comforter, one must help the one mourning identify the pain and grieve the loss.  Rather than prolonging grieving, as some may suspect, it actually helps the person heal.  Rather than attempting to suppress the emotions associated with the pain, they are embraced as a part of living.

Rather than become a Job’s comforter, the challenge is to become a true friend who “mourns with those who mourn”. If everyone became better at that perhaps all of Job’s comforters would be thrown out or at least drowned out by the love and kind words of those who are present to comfort those who mourn.

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