A blog containing some thoughts and life stories...
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Wednesday, May 30, 2012
The Privilege of Witnessing Dying
We all want to be present when a new life has come into the world. We all want to see and hold this new baby and share in celebration with the new parents. It is a time when people experience sheer joy. We rejoice and declare the new life everywhere we go and seem to instantaneously possess such love we’ve never known before. Birth is one of the two most significant marks of our lives. We are promised very little from the time we are born but we all know that someday we will die. What about those moments when you witness the last breath of a person’s life?
I’ve been working as a Volunteer Pastoral care-giver at the local hospital for a few weeks now and have been witness to people in the process of dying. The first person I visited was coming to the very end and I left the hospital with a deepened sense of the mark that they had left on me. I am marked by my birth, my siblings and every other person who has a significant place in my life, but never have I ever been so acutely aware of the mark that this relative stranger’s dying-process has left on me?
The experiences I’ve had at the hospital, caring for those near and after death, have marked me. Nicolas Wolterstorff wrote a book called “A Lament for a Son” where he expresses how the death of his son marks everything in his life. This book writes of the raw, dirty, gritty path through grief that we do not experience openly in society.
When I lived in Kenya, death was far more ‘common’ than it is here. What I mean by this is that death is far more visible. It is not hidden behind sanitized doors and it is not swept away immediately after a short ceremony. Funerals can last hours and when a person dies, the entire community is made aware. Wails and moaning can be heard from far away. As upsetting as it is to witness such open grief, I wonder If there is something to it that provides healing.
The community gathers around the grieving family and they have a vigil. People will pray for days and days before the service without leaving the house of the deceased.
Even though each of these unique situations are very different I recall being immersed in a deep feeling of gratitude and privilege. It is a privilege to be present during the last stages of life, just as it is to be at the beginning.
When we look at the themes of birth and death we often see them as a gain and a loss; life is given through birth and taken through death. I have come to look at it in a more cyclical fashion; the journey of life began at a time that we have yet to completely comprehend, it begins in a place that we understand and then it returns back to the place it began. I believe that it is in the witness of those left behind that we find the great gift, like the witness of a birth, of a life returning back to where it came from.