When Death Becomes Personal

"None of us knows if we, like my bother-in-law, will have time to prepare for our deaths, or if it will come suddenly, unexpectedly."

by Peg Coleman

Two years ago in June, while visiting family during vacation, my sister and I met for a lunch date. Before leaving she drew me aside to ask if her husband could join us. I was delighted because I thought a lot of Craig and we rarely had time together. He had been battling pancreatic cancer for months, and was reaching the point where the effects of the treatment sapped much of the energy he had always seemed to have in abundance. Where once he had spent hour after hour lobbying at the state capitol, now simple outings like this had to be weighed carefully against the other simple things he hoped to do that day. I was deeply touched that he wanted to be with us.

This lunch became one of the most special times I had ever spent with them. Craig began our conversation by asking how I thought he looked now as compared to the last time we were together less than a year ago. I thought he looked great, and said so. Then began a time of sharing and questioning that was the most real I had ever had with someone -- who was dying, and knew it.

My sister was tucked back in the corner of the booth, not talking, simply listening. I had no idea how much of what my brother in law shared that day was new for her. But I sensed from him that this was one of those precious moments where he trusted us, and particularly me, enough to share things he had faced in the quietness of his own heart and mind. I can't express how precious that moment was. We've probably all read articles or heard reports about how our society is one of the most reluctant in the world to face the fact of our own mortality. We express our avoidance by smoothing wrinkles, coloring our hair and plumping our skin in an effort to avoid seeing visible signs of our own body's deterioration. That was one of the reasons this time together was so precious; my brother in law was facing it, embracing it and sharing his thoughts about it all. He looked better to me because he had accepted the reality that his time on this earth would soon be over, and his sense of peace about it was palpable.

As many people are painfully aware, pancreatic cancer has a high, short-term prognosis. That is because the symptoms come on so silently. By the time a person becomes aware that something is more seriously wrong than an unset stomach or heartburn, the disease has an aggressive, invasive hold. My sister and brother in law were not passive bystanders once his diagnosis was made. They were online the moment they arrived home from the doctor's office, finding out all they could about the disease, its prognosis and all possible treatments. They traveled to different parts of the country, and interviewed with many doctors -- regarded as the best in the field of pancreatic cancer. They did all they could think of to do in a practical sense.

But there was another dimension to their lives, just as important, and that was prayer. My brother in law had become the focus of prayer for many people and church congregations. Years before, when their young daughter was diagnosed with cancer, we had all prayed for her healing and our prayers had been wonderfully answered. This little four-year-old girl, for whom the chances of survival dropped every time they turned around, is today finishing her second year at university. So if prayer for healing had worked for her, logic would say that surely it would work for Craig. It did not. At least not in the way we so often hope and think of as "successful".

What I learned from my brother in law that day was how he had moved from a man of action--trying every treatment, doing all the doctors suggested -- to a man with a deep sense that this entire situation had been allowed, for purposes he perhaps did not fully comprehend, but nonetheless knew were allowed by the Father in heaven whom he had come to trust entirely with his life. He had been able to commit this present time in his life, with all the physical pain but even more with the mental and emotional pain, into the hands of his loving Father and trust Him with it completely. That was the difference I saw in him that day. He had fought as hard as he could, done all that he could see in order to fight this disease. He loved his wife, his children, his family, but he seemed to sense that the One who said "I know the days I have for you, every one of them, before there was even yet one of them" was saying that the time was drawing near for the two of them to walk on together, face to face, in the eternity that has existed long before this world came into being.

Perhaps because I was an outsider in this situation, I knew my brother in law was sharing with me that he was ready to die if now was the time for him. Any hesitation he had rose out of his love and concern for his family. Were they ready to see this, as he did, or did he need to fight on a bit longer to give them more time to deal with the reality?

In the end, Craiag fought on for several more months until, one day, he decided it was time to stop the medication. In those months he and my sister had been able to have some of the deepest, most honest times of sharing and seeking God together that they had ever shared. He had had time to put things in order for his loved ones, and to say goodbye to dear friends.

His death on Thanksgiving Day seemed so appropriate. He was at home, with those he loved dearest on this earth around him. He went from loving arms to the arms of Love.

I am fully aware, as I share about my brother in law, that people are dying every day in horrible conditions of poverty and disease and deprivation. I know that innocent children are being killed by unexploded land mines and that women are being put to death for the most minor of infractions.

But whatever our social standing, whatever the outward physical conditions of our lives, we have something very basic in common. We will all die. By whatever means, in whatever conditions it happens, it will happen to each of us. And as someone said in a recent interview, "the question is, what is the purpose of it all?" When was the last time you asked yourself that question? Did you answer it, or was it simply too overwhelming--too scary? Have you asked that question at all? It's so easy to avoid thinking about it. Perhaps we're afraid there is no answer--or that there is no way of knowing, that no one can answer it for us. So we continue to fill our days and put off thinking about it "until tomorrow" and tomorrow, somehow, never comes for us.

What many of us, my brother in law and sister included, have come to realize is that the God who said "I know the plans I have for you, plans for good and not for evil, for a future and a hope", was thinking far beyond our few, short years on earth. He was talking about an eternal plan that He has for our lives, and He calls that plan good. If you have never taken the time to consider these things, would you take time now? None of us knows if we, like my brother in law, will have time to prepare for our deaths, or if it will come suddenly, unexpectedly. But we have been given today. What better time to think about something that will affect the rest of our lives in eternity?

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