Four Deaths and a Welcome Grace

A personal experience of God's presence in the context of death

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

Last week, I wrote about the question “Who is God?” I quoted Walter Brueggemann, one of the foremost Old Testament scholars, who reminds us that God is a real character in the story of the Bible, a God who acts, sends, delivers. We meet this God on every page of scripture. God is not an abstraction. This God comes to a particular people and chooses to be vulnerable and open to change for the sake of the world. This God is not an impassible force, but One who is capable of a range of emotions. God is filled with love and compassion. God knows anger and hate and even violence. God enters into the pain of God’s people.

I have had personal experience of this “presence” a number of time in the last few months. It was always in the context of a death. Let me explain.

Late August 2015. My wife Lori was in the USA visiting her children for the summer when I got a phone call that she had been admitted to hospital. Her children thought it might be a stroke, but the MRI showed it to be a brain tumour. We airlifted her to Kelowna, where it was diagnosed as malignant and aggressive. Nothing could be done. We had to prepare for her death.

Thankfully, we had talked about what we might do in such a circumstance. So we decided pretty quickly that we would take no action except to minimize the pain. She was flown home to Cranbrook, where she stayed in hospital for some time, and then moved to Joseph Creek Care Village, where she received exceptional care. I cannot commend JCCV highly enough.

Lori died on New Year’s Eve. While we were not afraid of death, the process itself was horrendous. As she put it, “I’m tired of losing bits of myself every day. I wish this was over. I want to die.”

We knew from the very beginning that there would be no other outcome. We were prepared for her to die. We were not prepared for the process of dying. It was hard and painful work for both of us.

Many people supported us: they prayed for us; spent time visiting; prepared meals for me. A precious gift during this time was the care exercised by the Cranbrook Kimberley Hospice Society worker. She spent countless hours with Lori as she slowly wasted away.

These people lived out God’s love for us in this dark time. Their care sustained us.

The second death occurred in the midst of all this turmoil in my life. A close friend died very quickly doing what he loved to do. He had a heart attack which took him in an instant. I felt two overwhelming emotions with his death. The first was profound relief that for him it ended so very quickly. He did not have to face the long, slow process through which Lori and I were living. I knew that it was hard for his family. They had no time to say goodbye. It took them some time to deal with their sudden loss.

The other emotion I felt was jealousy. I wondered to myself why Lori couldn’t have had a quick death. In the midst of that pain, a friend called me out of the blue and told me that we had no control over the time, we could only control how we dealt with the time we had left. Again, it was as if God were there with me.

The third death was that of a woman whom I loved as a dear friend. She was suffering from a chronic condition which was causing her to waste away. She had decided that since medical assistance in dying was not available to her in Canada, she would organize a trip to Switzerland for a “voluntary death.”

One of the consequences of not having medically assisted dying in Canada is that people have to die too soon when they travel to another jurisdiction. They need to be healthy enough to travel, and to give informed consent in that jurisdiction. And that, dear friends, is a terrible choice to have to make. It is a powerful argument in favour of medically assisted dying in Canada, and I am delighted to know that Parliament has finally drafted a law enabling the dying to exercise this right. It deserves the widest possible consideration and conversation. Needless to say, I am a strong advocate for medical assistance in dying.

The fourth death was my dog Moe. He had already become weak as Lori was dying, but I simply couldn’t have him put down at that time. It was more pain than I could bear. Hence, I waited until the same week as Lori died. As I held Moe in my arms, I couldn’t help but think how humane this was. A faithful companion and comfort to the end, Moe lived without complaint, even when his old, arthritic body could no longer do what he wished. He died peacefully, without pain and without complaint.

In all of this, I understood again that life and death dance together in a wonderful and intricate dance of grace and hope. Death is hard. Life is hard. Yet in the midst of such pain and difficulty, I knew once again the truth of the faith which sustains me. The last word does not belong to death. The last word is a word of grace, compassion, hope and love.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook