Letter writer: Coming to terms with ‘that good night’

Graphic by Lori Deaton

Your article on healthy death and funeral rights in the Sept. 21 issue was most informative and helpful [“Do Not Go Unprepared Into That Good Night: A Look at Healthy Death and Funeral Consumer Rights,” Xpress]. While still relatively healthy at age 86, death is a subject to which I am giving increasing attention. Reports of the death of a cousin, a seminary classmate, a fellow church member, and a former faculty colleague and close friend have come in just the past couple of weeks. When will it be my turn?

In one of my first sermons out of seminary, titled A Young Man Looks at Death, I began with the story of a young village woman in India, grieving the fresh loss of her husband still in his prime, who came to the Buddha with the eternal, and for her, agonizing question, “Why?” His response was to ask her to go throughout the village collecting a pebble from each household that had not been visited by death. When she returned empty-handed, she was already comforted by the awareness that hers was an experience shared with all humanity.

In the intervening 60 years, my journey toward acceptance of what your headline called that inevitable “good night” has been aided by:

• Coming to terms with my own mortality while grieving the death of both parents in their early 60s, leaving me without the anticipated supports normally accorded a young man.
• In a course led by the famed Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (author of On Death and Dying), watching through a one-way mirror as she interviewed dying patients on the way to establishing her now widely acknowledged five stages of the dying process — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
• Experiencing and learning from the attitudes, beliefs and practices surrounding death of other cultures and faiths — Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and several branches of Christendom — while living among people in Singapore, Israel-Palestine, Samoa, Korea, Central America, Haiti, the Philippines, etc.
• Losing to untimely and tragic deaths a month-old granddaughter and three nephews, the latter all to violence.
• Being impacted by the thesis of psychoanalyst Ernest Becker’s classic, The Denial of Death, that ultimately every human enterprise aimed at leaving a legacy (from birthing a child, to founding a business, to publishing a book, to mentoring a student, to carving a
gravestone, to earning a degree, to gaining an award, to creating a recipe, to establishing a reputation and so on) is motivated by the fear of death and desire to defeat it by leaving something behind to be remembered by.
• Reading and discussing with friends the recent best-seller, Being Mortal by Dr. Atul Gawande, and viewing the PBS video by the same name, moderated by Gawande and featuring other physicians who were helping their patients face into their impending deaths — overcoming the doctors’ own reluctance, abetted by deficiencies in their medical training which avoided the subject of death, considering it a “failure.”
• Hearing a panel of theologians, pastors and journalists share their views of life after death, including one who envisioned it as moving up an escalator and, upon reaching the top, floating off into the unknown, trusting the outcome to the Author of all.
• Considering the guidance of Scripture, my faith tradition, my personal experience and my own reasoning process.
• And prayerfully reflecting — by myself and with others — on all of the above as they relate to my preparation for entering “into that good night.”

Your article has added another resource to the above list, and for this I am grateful.

Such reflections — confirmed by the advice in your article — have led me and my wife to form a “team” of consultants to aid in the process: our grown children with whom to make end-of-life decisions and leave instructions; lawyers to prepare our wills; financial advisers to help manage our estate; a funeral director and monument maker to handle final arrangements; physicians to maintain our health and help us die purposefully; pastors to help us die faithfully and gracefully; and ourselves to be honest and open with one another every step of the way.

In all this, of one thing I am confident: “underneath are the Everlasting Arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27, King James version) — which invokes a profound trust in the ongoing Creative Energy called Love that nurtures and sustains all of Life.

— Doug Wingeier

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