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Selected Presentations

June Gilbertson (April 2007)

Life, Death and Attitude

In September, at a discussion after a service I had done, Jim Wilton asked me if I would do a sermon about death. He commented that Unitarian Universalists had a tendency to avoid the subject of death -- in fact, he thought we avoided the dark side of life in our determination to be hopeful and optimistic. There is truth in Jim's perception and as I enjoy being challenged, I agreed to do some thinking about death for the next time I spoke.

I had actually been thinking a lot about death at that time as I had just started to work as a chaplain in a busy hospital in Hamilton. Much of my work involves patients and their family come to terms with medical diagnoses, amputations, or their impending death. It was not uncommon for me to deal with two or three deaths of patients on a night when it was my turn to be on call.

Each of us knows that life is terminal. However, there are different levels of that knowing. We use clich's when we refer to death to help us skim over the surface of our knowing. You can't take it with you, we say of material goods; or we won't live for ever. If we want to be indulgent, we might say, "Gather ye rose buds while ye may old time is soon a-passing." When we are young, we are usually cocooned from death by many layers. Both time and experience remove those layers. I was 36 years old when my mother died suddenly and at that time I felt as though layers of my own mortality were suddenly stripped away. So much of my identity, my sense of self had been shaped by her that I felt like and aphid exposed to a world I no longer felt sure I fitted into. With time, and loving support, I survived and found strength and meaning which has helped me to better understand others.

Being present at the death of many strangers had a different effect on me. I find it very moving when I am requested to be present at the most vulnerable time for both the patient and their family. Grief is usually an expression of love and at times, the depth of feeling and connection I have experienced has deeply moved me. Let me tell you about Leon.

If you use the Scotiabank at St George's Square, there is a poster beside the bank machine full of children's smiles. Included is a picture of Leon, a man who was ill all of his life. I met him when I did a Remembrance Day service on his ward last year. Leon was 47 years old, very frail and tiny as a result of his illness which had also necessitated the amputation of an arm and a leg. His family came from Holland and he told me with pride about the heroic behaviour of his relatives during the last war. I did not have many more conversations with Leon, but I became very aware of his influence on other patience on my unit. So often, a patient adjusting to the loss of a limb, or in pain following surgery would say "I felt so sorry for myself -- until I talked to Leon. He gave me a different way to look at things."

Some months ago, Leon had a second arm partially amputated in an unsuccessful attempt to save his life. I was on call when his parents requested the Sacrament of the Sick, what used to be called The Last Rights. Leon was a devout Roman Catholic and as the priest anointed him with oil, he attempted to cross himself with the stump of his remaining arm. Both of his parents were deeply loving people, who had suffered alongside and who deeply admired their son. They very much wanted to give him permission to stop fighting, to go to sleep, to die. It gave them some comfort to hear how influential their son had been and I liked his father's comment, "If Leon is not in heaven, I don't think there is a heaven, nor would I want to be there." Leon did die peacefully as short time later.

What moved me deeply about this man was not just the very big spirit in the small, frail body. Nor was it the devout faith which had helped him right until the end. Leon was not a saint, he had been angry, depressed, questioning of life, but he also remained caring and connected to others, until the moment he died. It was his unflinching engagement in living with both its pain and its happiness which moved me deeply.

A week after I started thinking about this talk, I was alone at night in the hospital when I got the results of tests that confirmed that I had a malignant tumour in the tube connecting my kidney and bladder. My thinking about life and death became very personal in the time before, during and after surgery. I learned a number of valuable lessons in this part of my journey. Firstly I found other people?s reactions to words like cancer or malignancy were sometimes much more frightening than the reality of what was happening to me physically. My first reaction was to tell only those very close to me who needed to know. Cancer can become a dirty little secret and it was a wise patient in the hospital who challenged my secrecy. She asked me how I would feel if the people I cared about wanted to withhold such information from me to protect me. She challenged me to make a list of people I cared about and to talk openly with each person on the list. I am so glad I did, as the love and support I received from family, friends, colleagues and this congregation wove a magic carpet which floated me through the most difficult days. The experience has been life altering in positive ways. I have become more comfortable in my own skin. More in tune with my own needs and more balanced in regard to what I give to life and what I get from life. My own career direction has changed too. I no longer plan to be an ordained minister; instead I intend to continue to be one of the many who minister in this congregation.

Fear of death can dominate and direct how we live our lives. Joseph Addison says "The fear of death often proves mortal, and sets people on methods to save their lives which infallibly destroy them." I don't think he is referring to our obsessions with what we eat, with best medical advice, or miracle cures alone. I always loved the movie "Moonstruck" The mother in the film acted by Olivia Dukakis is a very pragmatic woman who knows that her husband of many years loves her, but she is trying to work out why he also needs to have a young mistress. Eventually she understands -- it's because he is afraid to die. Sometimes it is our work, our prestige, which provides our buffer against death and as each of these gets removed, we come face to face with ourselves and our mortality. Facing death means facing the purpose and meaning of life.

The children's story I chose today and Tom Harpur's essay present a view of life after death which appeals to me. My two years at seminary studying church scripture and history helped me understand that hell- however well Dante described it -- hell was used by the church as a means of controlling people with the threat of perdition. The truth is that we don't know what happens when we die. It makes as much sense to think that we might come back and have another life as it does to conceive of heaven and hell. Personally, I like the image of death liberating our souls so that they can be freed to move off like the dragonfly.

When I was young, Dylan Thomas' poem made sense to me:- "Do not go gently into this dark night -- but rage, rage against the dying of the light". However, as I get older and closer to my own death, I find I admire a different kind of courage. It is the behaviour best described in the last stanza of a poem called courage by Anne Sexton:-

When you face old age and its natural conclusion
Your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
Each spring will be a sword you'll sharpen
Those you love will live in a fever of love,
And you'll bargain with the calendar
And at the last moment
When death opens the back door
You'll put on your carpet slippers and stride out.

Last week I had the privilege of meeting a woman with this kind of courage. She used to be a member of this congregation over 30 years ago. She's been told that she has only a few months of living still to do. She is planning her memorial service and the details of her cremation so that her sons and her husband will not have to guess at her wishes. This is someone who loves life, her family, her plants, her garden and some beautiful objects which she cherishes. I found her ability to gaze steadily at death was reflected in her engagement of life. When death opens the back door, she will put on her carpet slippers and stride out. I'd like to think I would have the courage to do the same.

The Unitarian Congregation of Guelph -- Phone: 519-836-3443
122 Harris Street, Guelph, Ontario, Canada, N1E 5T1

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