I have a friend who is a hospice chaplain, and I will occasionally go with him when he has a veteran to visit, as I am a vet myself and sometimes, it helps to have one of your own there.
Anyway, what it all boils down to is that I visit with people who are dying. It may sound kind of creepy, but I do this for several reasons-to pay my respects to those who have sacrificed for our freedoms, to help others as I hope to be helped some day, to hold their hand, so they know that, at the very end, there was someone there and they are not alone.
Mainly though, my reasons are quite selfish. I want to gather as much information as I can about dying and what goes through the mind at the last moment. Why? Hell, that's easy!
I'm scared shit-less about dying, that's why!
Anyway, the one question that always come up is this-what do people who are dying talk about? When you ask this question, the answer that immediately springs to mind is God. Do they talk about God or religion or prayer?
No. Not usually. Mostly, they talk about family. Mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. They talk about the love they felt, and the love they gave. Often they will talk about love they did not receive or the love they did not know how to offer, the love they withheld, or maybe the love they never felt for the ones they should love unconditionally.
They talk about how they learned what love was, and what it is not. And sometimes, when they are actively dying and the fluids are gurgling in their throats, they will reach out to people who I don't see or call out....Momma, Daddy, Mother. But they don't talk about God, and I often wondered why. After all, this would be the time, right?
What I didn't understand then was that, at this point in life, they talk about their families because that is how we talk about God! That is how we talk about the meaning of our life. That is how we talk about the big spiritual question of human existence.
You see, we don't live in our heads, in theology and theories.
We live in our families. The families we are born into, the families we create, and the families we make through the people we choose as friends. This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, and this is where our purpose becomes clear.
Family is where we first experience love and when we first give it. It's probably the first place we've been hurt by someone we love, and hopefully the place where we learn that love can overcome even the most painful rejection.
The crucible of love is where we start to ask those big spiritual questions, and ultimately where they end.
I have been....honored, to see such love.
A husband who gently washes his wife's face with a cool washcloth, cupping the back of her bald head because she is too weak to raise it herself. A daughter (my mother) spooning pudding into the mouth of her mother, who hasn't recognized her in years.
A wife (again, my mother) arranging the pillow under the head of her no-longer breathing husband as she helps the undertaker lift him to the awaiting stretcher.
We don't learn the meaning of our life by discussing it. It will not be found in books or lecture halls, or even churches, synagogs, or mosques.
It is discovered through the actions of love.
If God is Love, and we believe that to be true, then we learn about God when we learn about love.
The first, and last, classroom of love is the family.
Sometimes that love is not only imperfect, but it seems to be missing entirely. Monstrous things can happen in a family. Sometimes, I hear about what it feels like when the person you love beats or rapes you. Sometimes they talk of how it feels to be totally unwanted by their parents. They tell of how it feels to be the target of someones rage. They tell of how it feels to abandon your children or how drinking or using drugs destroyed their family, or how they failed to care for those in need.
I hear this, and I am amazed at the strength of the human soul. People who did not know love in their own families know that they should have been loved. They know that something is missing and they know what they deserved as children and adults
I also learned something else. When love is imperfect or a family was destructive, something else can be learned.
Forgiveness. The spiritual work of the human being is learning how to love and how to forgive.
When I go to visit these people, we don't use words of theology to talk about God; people who are close to death almost never do.
The gift that I have been given from those who are dying is this-the best way to teach my children about God is by loving each other wholly and fully and forgiving their follies-perhaps just as each one of us wants to be loved and forgiven by our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.