A time to die…
A couple of weeks ago, I said goodbye to a dear and beautiful friend, Sue. After a 5 year fight with cancer, she is now with God. She was my friend, my next door neighbour and a parishioner. I had the privilege of travelling with her through the ups and downs of her last year. The hope, the heartbreak, the fear and the peace. I have done the same journey with many friends over the years, and it doesn’t get easier. As a former palliative care nurse, in the community and hospice, I have also journeyed with many other families in a process of release and letting go. Of loving and leaving. It was a job I loved, although inevitably costly. It is possible to care for someone who is dying and hold yourself apart, with a protective distance, but that was something I could/ can never do. The end of life is ‘Holy Ground’ that requires bare, unprotected feet, in my book. It is far more abut being, than doing. And being with, means exactly that. Being. Present to, and attentive to the whole person and their needs of the moment. With. Alongside. In the dark and the light, the pain and the peace.
Part of me will always be a palliative care nurse. It is a ‘hat’ I can never take off, nor that of a midwife, an earlier profession. Both professions inform and shape the priest I am.
Sue accepted her approaching death with grace and courage. She knew the gentle arms in which she was held in life, would be the ones who would carry her Home. From home to Home. Her husband Bill, read the following beautiful poem at her Thanksgiving service.
A Song Of Living
Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die. I have sent up my gladness on wings, to be lost in the blue of the sky. I have run and leaped with the rain, I have taken the wind to my breast. My cheek like a drowsy child to the face of the earth I have pressed. Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.
I have kissed young Love on the lips, I have heard his song to the end, I have struck my hand like a seal in the loyal hand of a friend. I have known the peace of heaven, the comfort of work done well. I have longed for death in the darkness and risen alive out of hell. Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.
I give a share of my soul to the world, when and where my course is run. I know that another shall finish the task I must leave undone. I know that no flower, nor flint was in vain on the path I trod. As one looks on a face through a window, through life I have looked on God, Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.
Amelia Josephine Barr
It was not one I had come across before, but I would like it to be read at mine, whenever that is. It encapsulates my own feelings about life and death succinctly. I have loved life. ‘I have sent up my gladness on wings, to be lost in the blue of the sky.’ I have found the joy even in the darkest of places. In the minutiae, ordinary and everyday. This God-supplied underground stream always bubbles cool and clear, a constant source of refreshment that has nothing to do with circumstances. I don’t mean to imply for a moment that I don’t get tired, grumpy and unappreciative. But the stream burbles on, regardless. Calling me to joy. Calling me to thankfulness. Eucharisteo in the centre of everything. Calling me to the wonder, curiosity and spontaneity of a five year old.
For a whole variety of reasons, I have never feared death, although I have brushed Heaven’s gates myself, at least a couple of times. I feared bereavement, and when my father died suddenly in his fifties, my darkest fears were realised. The deepest of many losses that would follow down the years. It is hard to say goodbye. Somehow, in meeting that loss face on, and in the long journey of grief that followed my father’s death, the fear of bereavement evaporated. Perhaps just as well, as it has become all too familiar territory.
A family friend who died from breast cancer (at a similar age to Sue), just three short months before my father, wrote beautifully of her acceptance of the situation she found herself, and how ‘with His Peace, he graced this place of tears‘. My father had travelled closely with Guisela, through her journey with cancer. A few weeks before she died, she shared with him a verse from Psalm 139. ” All the days ordained for me were written in your book, before one of them came to be” v.16 “Isn’t that wonderful?” She marvelled to him, as he wondered just who was preparing who, (as it turned out, they were preparing each other for the start of their eternal lives in Heaven) She found deep rest in the knowledge that her ‘times were in God’s hands’. The safest hands of all.
She expressed her feelings in this meditative poem.
Resignation is surrender to fate-
acceptance is surrender to God.
Resignation lies down quietly in an empty universe.
Acceptance rises up to meet the God who fills that universe with purpose and destiny.
Resignation says ‘I can’t.’
Acceptance says ‘ God can’
Resignation paralyses the life process,
acceptance releases the process for its greatest creativity.
Resignation says ‘ it is all over for me’,
acceptance asks, ‘ Now that I am here, what is next Lord? ‘
Resignation says ‘what a waste’ ,
acceptance asks ‘ In what redemptive way will you use this mess, Lord.? ‘
Resignation says ‘ I am’
Acceptance says ‘ I belong – to you, God’
At the Thanksgiving Service for Sue’s life,
I read the following reading from Ecclesiastes :
Ecclesiastes 3:1-11 The Voice (VOICE)
For everything that happens in life—there is a season, a right time for everything under heaven:
A time to be born, a time to die;
a time to plant, a time to collect the harvest;
A time to kill, a time to heal;
a time to tear down, a time to build up;
A time to cry, a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, a time to dance;
A time to scatter stones, a time to pile them up;
a time for a warm embrace, a time for standing apart;
A time to search, a time to lose;
a time to keep, a time to throw out;
A time to tear apart, a time to bind together;
a time to be quiet, a time to speak up;
A time to love, a time to hate;
a time to go to war, a time to make peace.
What good comes to anyone who works so hard, all to gain a few possessions? I have seen the kinds of tasks God has given each of us to do to keep one busy, and I know God has made everything beautiful for its time. God has also placed in our minds a sense of eternity; we look back on the past and ponder over the future, yet we cannot understand the doings of God.
I was honoured to be given the opportunity to pay tribute to Sue at the service.
I have had the privilege of knowing Sue, (and her lovely family), for about 18 months, and lived next door to her, for just over a year. I was her friend, a back door, kitchen table visitor, who somehow bypassed any of the normal formalities of relationship, drawn in by the warmth of her smile and hug. ‘a time to embrace’ …
Others here are much more qualified than I to speak of Sue in years gone by, and will do. I simply want to give tribute to a brave and beautiful lady who let me travel with her on the last part of her journey.
Being brave, doesn’t mean you don’t know fear. Being brave is feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Ernest Hemmingway said, “Courage is grace under pressure” and he could have been talking about Sue. Sue met the challenges she faced with, as Judith put it, outrageous courage and grace. Another friend of hers, who I hope won’t mind me borrowing her words, put it beautifully.
“Sue faced the highs and lows of her cancer with clarity and integrity. She never shied away from the impact of her treatments and her losses and yet she managed all this with huge generosity of spirit, often with wry humour and always with a deep commitment to her family at the heart of everything.”
This is the Sue I knew, loved and travelled with. I came across a quote that said: “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” A time to love..
There is no question that Sue was a woman who was deeply loved. You all here, today is part testimony to that- and look around you at the flowers- This church was ablaze with love & light last night as Sue’s friends filled this place with fragrance & colour. There was music/wine/memories/tears & laughter.. a time to laugh, a time to cry.. Sue knew and felt the love that surrounded her as a tangible force that gave her strength, very particularly so in these last months. She would often tell me, with tears in her eyes, how much she drew from the love and care of family and friends that she experienced being poured out for her.
She also knew herself deeply loved by God. Held in his love, she was radiant with it in recent weeks as her path led closer and closer to Heaven. She was deeply at Peace, as she came to the end of her life, here on earth with us all. Wrapped in his Peace, like a soft blanket, (as she described it once) she was able to face death with courage.
“loving someone deeply gives you courage” and Sue was a woman who loved with all her heart. There was no half measures in love for Sue. She gave and gave and then gave some more. She loved Bill and Charlotte and Joey and the rest of her family with a fierce passion that gave her courage. She loved the God, who called her by name, walked at her side, & into whose arms she knew she was about to be scooped up with great tenderness. A time to die..
On the night she died, I woke suddenly following a extraordinarily vivid dream. I dreamt I knelt at her bedside, and put my arms gently around her frail, worn out body. Her better- than-well-self woke up in my embrace and hugged me back. She was grinning from ear to ear and glowing with joy. She didn’t say a word, but her sparkling eyes said it all.
“and I know that God has made everything beautiful for its time” God certainly made this lovely lady Sue, beautiful-in her time, inside and out, & now, outside of time itself, and dancing with the angels, I expect she is more beautiful than ever.
( Sue loved butterflies and they were the theme of the thanksgiving service for her life.)