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Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ How We Die

I was thirty-two years old when a woman took my advice on how to die.

Sitting in her low living room banked with windows that overlooked butterfly-laden bushes, I watched her shallow breaths. She had lost strength and energy: her frame seemed diminished, as if her soul were clinging to her body by mere tendrils.

While disease sapped her vitality, her mind was still quietly at work.

She did not want to disappoint the children.

But the last-chance sign was a few miles behind her. She had tried the best last-ditch effort that modern medicine could offer. It would work for some people. It would not work for her.

She did not want to disappoint the children.

My eyes took in her papery skin, her closed eyes, her quiet words – breaths barely bounded by consonants. Each inhale seemed as negligible as the air movement around the butterflies in the yard. They might outlive her.

I breathed deeply.

“If you want to keep fighting, we are all with you. You know how loved you are. But if you are tired, no one can blame you for that. You have fought the good fight, you have finished the race, you have kept the faith. Give yourself permission to let go. Sit down and tell your kids that they need to give you permission to go, that they need to let you go. And if you feel it’s time to call Hospice, that’s alright. They’re a wonderful organization, they will take care of you, and they will care for your family.”

Dishes and pans clinked in the kitchen, familiar sounds of home coming from a much older woman who was watching her daughter slowly fade. I glanced over the form in front of me. I couldn’t tell whether she was still awake – just exhausted – or whether she had drifted off to sleep. Not long after, I took my leave. The encounter weighed on me over the weekend.

And then I received a shock: after my visit, the rapidly fading grandma who seemed almost transparent with approaching death had heeded my counsel. She had called her grown, grieving children around her. And then she had called Hospice. Within two weeks, she died.

I still miss her. For all her seeming diminishment, her absence is palpable.

But I also mourn the absence of ministries related to holy dying. I think, in our culture, their absence is palpable (as so many roadside memorials testify).

How you die matters: not the mode of dying – be it aneurysm or asteroid, tachycardia or exploding toilet. Even the ethics of death – assisted death by physican or other forms of suicide – trump the conversation on expiration.

No, how you die matters. Do you die at peace with your God, at peace with others, at peace with yourself? Do you die with a weathered faith that murmurs, ‘til the end, “I know that my Redeemer lives…”? Do you die with the taste of communion bread in your mouth? Do you die hearing the voices of your sisters and brothers in the faith read Psalms, read prayers, sing words of comfort, hope and truth? Do you die, confident of the goodness of Life? Do you die, knowing that soon, your tomb will be full, but that The Tomb That Matters Is Empty? Do you die with curiosity about what it feels like to caper with Triune Eternity?

Most humans will never choose the mode of death – big rig, pneumonia, hurricane, malaria. A few humans will choose heroic action as their mode of death. But all of us, fragile like seasonal butterflies on the breeze, can choose how we die. Even those of us with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia can choose how to slip into the deepening twilight; and who knows what subterranean choices are made in the depths of human consciousness, even when the surface is blank and staring.

Yes, how you die matters. Funerals are a surface ministry to grieving family and community members. Important, yes; but what if we move from a funeral ministry to a ministry of holy deathbeds?

A holy deathbed is a community event; a sacramental event; an evangelistic event. It is pure in its unity of purpose: to proclaim the Risen Christ.

Each breath that slows still further etches “Christ has died…” in the firmament of time and space. Each fluttering pulse that weakens yet more beats “Christ is risen…” to the rhythm of the spheres. Each flickering eyelid that closes to this world counsels “Christ will come again…” to the rising and setting sun.

How do you choose to die?