Not all death is beautiful.
But it could be. Well, maybe not at first. Because some of it is caused by senseless violence or systems of injustice. At times, it takes the innocent – those too young, too frail, too vulnerable to protect their self. There are instances where pain, dejection, hopelessness, despair have led to a last breath being drawn. Even still, it can be sudden. No warning, no lingering goodbyes, no “one last kiss”. Snap – yes, just that quick, the transition occurs. And we that are left behind, remain to mourn.
Yet, I still think there’s beauty in death. It may not be realized until years, decades even, after the one that was has journeyed on. But, even in death, I believe we see glimpses of the Father’s love. We can see glimpses of our love, and our loves, too.
Death used to scare me. Part of it was my mom. I may give her too much credit – I tend to recall her as an faultless, wise and maybe even mystical in some ways. But I remember she used to say that she could sense when someone was going to die. She used to dream about it, or perhaps have visions, before it occurred. Of course, as a child, that messed me up. I was freaked out!
As I look back now, I find it interesting. When significant people in our lives passed, like Uncle Wayne, Aunt Sarah, our church friend Mr. McCarroll, Grandaddy Speed, I couldn’t sleep right. That’s to be expected, I assume. Yet, the air always felt charged. My spirit was uneasy and I didn’t have the words to express what my spirit was perceiving. A sense of different realms colliding. It became clearer when she died.
That is when I witnessed the beauty of death. I wasn’t at all ready for it. Yet, surprisingly I was. I just didn’t know it. Realistically I should have been able to see how it’d end. In death. But my blinders were on and denial was strong. So we sailed through the month between the final diagnosis and surgery like it wasn’t as serious as it was. Even after they removed the cancerous tumor from her brain, I couldn’t see how that week would unfold.
In just 7 days…
Days filled with recalling memories I had not lived with her – those of times enjoyed with her siblings in a simpler, more care-free season of life. Days of deciphering doctor-speak and peering around the bodies sent to poke, prod, predict and prepare us. It wasn’t until that Wednesday when the doctor, one I didn’t recognize from other days before, came into the room and said nonchalantly to no one in particular, “obviously this is terminal”.
BOOM! That’s how I found out how this journey was going to end. I guess I could’ve surmised that myself since her condition had deteriorated significantly. With eyes rolled all the way to the back of her head, the past 2 days in a semi-conscious state she’d continuously moaned in pain. As her sister and I took turns stroking her arm, speaking soothing reassurances, the hours crept by. Until that moment – when time stood still. It was then, that the doctor’s words ushered in the familiar spiritual uneasiness I’d felt as a kid each time before when a loved one passed.
In the days that unfolded I became keenly aware of what it was. It was the meeting of heaven and earth, the spirits of ancestors and the living, and the one locked between, meeting. And in the midst of it all, He was there.
One day I will need to write the story, the full account of how me, my sisters, my dad, my aunts, our faithful friends (and trifling boyfriends who got it together for a minute) ushered our Nancy into eternal rest. I remember it vividly. Well, not all of it. Not her last breath. I wasn’t there for that.
I do remember my final goodbye. There were tears. But they were ones filled with a unimaginable sense of peace. I was ready to let her go. I didn’t have a choice. Yet, I did. I didn’t want to fight it. She was ready. He was waiting. And I was able to let her go.
I think of it as my final gift to my mom. I and my sister were tasked with meeting her brother and his wife at the airport and to bring them to the hospital to say goodbye to my mom. My dad was really specific, because he knows about my overwhelming sense of responsibility. He told me to do this for my mom but know she might be gone before we returned. Time wasn’t what needed to be considered. What mattered was the presence and opportunity for others to have peace as well. My task was to help others get peace.
It was a record-setting trip down the Dulles Toll Road. Escorted by angels I’m sure, we scooped up my uncle and aunt and returned to my mother’s hospital bed. She was already gone by all medical standards. Yet, her spirit lingered. It was undeniably present and undeniably her. His was there too (certainly, it always is). In the most beautiful way I could have never imagined or knew to request, we individually, and as a family, said our final goodbyes. Someone prayed. Maybe my dad. Maybe our friend Rev. Addison. That part’s a blur. But someone prayed. And we let her go.
Death isn’t ever easy. But I pray that it can be beautiful. I know it can be – hard, but beautiful. Messy, but beautiful. Gut-wrenching, infuriating, incomprehensible…and yet, still beautiful.
My heart leaped yesterday morning when I read the headline of the article that my sister sent me in Facebook Messenger, How Death Doulas Ease the Final Transition (that girl knows me so well 😊). Why did it leap? Well, since my mom’s death, during the grief journey and in experiencing subsequent deaths since, I have a new perspective on death. From attending grief camp, to false starts at writing my novel on death, loss and healing, to coming alongside those that mourn the loss of a loved one (whether physically being present, through prayer, by means of a listening ear or conveyed through a warm meal) I see the beauty that is embedded in the pain and hurt and grief and all the other feelings and emotions. That one experience, my mother’s death, has framed how I approach death and dying since.
A few years ago one of my good friends told me about her desire to become a doula. I was floored and mesmerized – to help prepare the way and usher in new life. That sounded incredible! And then meeting someone who was a practicing doula I was like “Yes, I want to do that!” I think that was just a preview. Because, yesterday happened. That article, explaining the art and ministry and beauty of helping another transition well into eternity. The prospect of coming alongside someone’s loved ones to make the process a little more beautiful – that is exciting to me. What a sweet privilege to be invited into and connected with the spiritual-ness of that transition.
Am I becoming a doula tomorrow? Nah. Is it my next job, my next calling? Not the very next one, I don’t think. But it is something I feel drawn to. My spirit is intrigued by how God works and can use willing vessels to make Him known and glorified. Even in the messiness of death.
There are so many possibilities of how this may play out. A death doula through written word or vocal proclamations or through the ministry of presence – the possibilities are plentiful. The future reality is probably better than anything I could try to cook up right now anyway. But honestly, at this very moment, I’m just overjoyed to see a glimpse of what could be down the road, whether once more or many more times in my lifetime. To experience and be a part of easing another’s transition makes me want to raise my hand and say, “Choose me”. That right there, is beautiful to me.