I got to know death intimately from a distance when I worked as a chaplain at the hospitals in Minneapolis and Boston. I often would work in emergency/crisis situations, and more often than not, that situation included death.
I’ve sat with many people on their deathbed, holding their hand, caressing their forehead, talking, singing, reciting poetry, and holding silence as they’ve died.
And I’ve seen a lot of stuff that gave me reason to believe there’s gotta be so much more after this life.
A pastor would talk to you about heaven. Well, I’m a pretty shit pastor. So, I never know what to say when people ask me to tell them about heaven or ask if God will accept this or be upset about that. I do retain the title of minister and I think it’s more fitting. I like to dream and wonder with the people I am with, and I don’t claim to know anything for certain. The best pastors I know also share they are uncertain. I don’t know really know what’s out there after this, but I do know that it’s something unknown–but not something to be afraid of. I am not afraid.
Many people see their loved ones who have died before they die. Sometimes days/weeks before they die, sometimes in their final moments. Death can often be a long drawn out play more than a one-act show, so sometimes I’ve sat days with people. Sometimes, just a few hours.
Sometimes death really is sudden and without warning. Sometimes, I am the person who stands with the family as they watch medical intervention try to save their loved ones life.
Well, I used to be that person, I should say. I will always be a minister, but I’m no longer a chaplain or a pastor. I now work as a therapist with teenagers, a calling that has been another stepping stone, or rather final spot, on my career journey.
Still, I miss working with the dying. Isn’t that so weird? It’s very sad, yes, but its also an honor to be with people as they go through this final phase and into the unknown. It’s an honor to get glimpses of what could be, visions and dreams and hear about others experiences as they are experiencing. Three of my aunts asked for my on their deathbed in the last 10 years. I was too far away to get to them, so I am not sure why they were asking for me. I sat up one night with my new boyfriend and told him how I have this idea that they weren’t actually asking for me, they were calling out to me– because maybe when we die it’s like we jump over time and everyone actually is all together in this place we call heaven and time doesn’t matter there. So I can simultaneously be there and yet still here living.
He nodded his head and affirmed that was a cool thought and we talked more about death. He isn’t afraid of my weirdness, I noted.
I don’t mind thinking about death. I wish we as a society thought about it more often. The hospital taught me that we are all one accident away from life changing events. It also taught me, along with my work in the recovery world, to take one day at a time and live mindfully in that day. Nothing is ever promised.
I wish I could tell you that this professional experience of death follows me when it’s personal.
When it’s my family member, my aunt, my friend, my loved one.
And while I can hold onto my faith of trusting that there is more to life beyond death, it still really strings.
The finality of it all on our end. The unfairness of it all. God dammit, the unfairness.
A person I really care for and love is dying. She’s not family, but a person I’ve gotten to know over the last few years that’s changed my life. I’ve been in denial most of the year, but then she saw her mother before her surgery– and I know what it means. My heart keeps trying to deny what my brain knows.
I think back to the time I saw her at our last conference and she was taking photos of everyone. That’s what she does– gifted as both a wordsmith and a photographer. That’s such a rare combination. I wish I had asked for her to take a photo with me.
I want something tangible to hold on to.
I was walking down second street in Minneapolis by the Guthrie and I passed an older woman wearing a wide-brimmed deep purple hat with a flower drawn in on it. She was sitting outside and eating with her friends. My mind thought, “Maybe it’s her!” But as I got closer, I could see the woman was elderly, 20 years more than my friend.
I teared up as I thought “it’s not fair. She’s not going to be able to enjoy her 80s and wear her hats and have lunch outside.”
I often find myself sitting in that game of “not fair” as my brain tries to process things logically and intellectually when I know it’s my heart that has to feel them. My eyes that have to cry. My shoulders that have to drop and give into the weight of grief.
My mentor is dying. She has been, for over a year. She was given her terminal diagnosis sometime at the beginning of 2022. She told me first out of our cohert. Maybe because I had been the chaplain, I thought. Maybe it was just luck of the draw.
She cried. I started tearing up, a new thing. Normally I can maintain composure. But the older I get, the softer I get– the harder it becomes to bracket these feelings when it’s a loved one, someone you deeply care for.
I know I need to lean into my grief again. I need to feel and not just think or intellectualize.
A week or so ago, they asked her what she wanted to do when she said it was time to switch to hospice and she said she wanted to enjoy ordinary days and plant dahlias. I didn’t know how to pronounce dahlias, so I asked my friend M who is living with me temporarily. M is one of those good people who helps you when you ask and gently corrects when you mispronounce things you’ve only read on paper.
I saw dahlais for sale at Sam’s Club with my mom and we agreed to buy them and plant them. Plant them like prayers, thought. Or somedays, like pleas. This world is a tough place and losing such a bright light seems unbearable. It is unbearable. The feelings are crushing and overwhelming.
This woman is a change maker. She’s accomplished so much in her life— but I think her biggest accomplishments is how much she’s helped other people by offering a hand up, a place to fit in, a welcoming invite to belong.
She openly shared with me her secrets to her fierce anger about bad legislation and policy changes. “Know the rules,” she said, “Know them so well that they can’t back away when you question them.” I’ve been working on my anger, although I am not very good at it. I’ve been learning all the statues and rules. I am committed to continuing to dismantle the patriarchy. “Don’t make decisions when you are angry. Give it 24 hours and come back to it,” She guided me. I know she is a shoulder I stand on, along with other women who have paved the way. And I know this work must continue and that I will pass this down, too, when I can be wise and it’s my turn.
I wish she could have seen some of that legislation come to fruit. Like the Counseling Compact. Minnesota has got to get on board and this country has to open pathways for mental health access. The compact is a country-wide way we can do that. I hate that politics have gotten so person-powerful that one voice from Rochester, Minnesota can stop it all.
There I go getting all in my head again. But it’s my heart that hurts. My heart that is breaking.
I will miss her very much. Sometimes, people can make the biggest impact in your life in the smallest amount of time. I will continue to honor her and others by paying it forward. One step at a time.
One day at a time. Feel your feelings. Trust the process. Step into the unknown. We never go it alone and we get glimpses when we take the time to open our hearts and look around.
My god, I am going to miss you.
It’s unfair, it’s unfair, it’s unfair. Deep sigh.
Save me a spot. I’ll see you again soon. I will keep planting the dahlias.