A Few Reflections on Not Dying Suddenly

Stanley Hauerwas says, in the foreword to John Swinton and Richard Payne’s book Living Well and Dying Faithfully: Christian Practices for End-of-Life Care,

At one time, Christians feared the kind of death we say we want in answer to the question ‘How to [sic] you want to die?’ They feared a sudden death because that meant they had lost the opportunity to prepare to face God. They wanted time to be reconciled with those whom they had wronged, the church, and, most of all, with God. Like us, they loved life and did not want to die, but death did not determine their dying. Their dying was determined by their confidence in the love of God.

When I see the words sudden death, I think of the Litany’s petition for God to deliver us from sudden death. That my paternal grandfather was spared from a sudden death, in fact, has blessed me probably far more than I can tell in this life. It was as he struggled with liver cancer, in 1999 and 2000, that he came to know the Lord as our former pastor came to visit him and talk with him. Having stayed over at that pastor’s house when my brother was born, I knew that my grandfather had gotten to experience some of the love of Christ from outwith our own family, and it was wonderful to know that the pain of cancer had actually brought my grandfather, a long resister of the gospel, to the arms of Christ. And I myself, in Stanford Hospital, got to share something with my grandfather that I would never have experienced had he not had the time to get ready to die. The last time I ever saw him, before flying back to Virginia, there were some grapes on the table, but he couldn’t eat them because he could no longer take the skins. I peeled the skins for him, and in doing so I got to do more for him than I could ever have done before. We had not spent all that much time together before then, in the first 10 years of my life, but that event alone did more to bring us closer together than anything before or since.

When he died, I grieved, but I also felt greatly at peace about it, because I was sure he was with the Lord. I think, too, this experience is why my grandfather’s was the first funeral of which I had any specific memories (it was a beautiful funeral, too), and why I still feel the desire to go up to Mountain View Cemetery, in the Oakland hills, every time I go to the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s also why I feel that my own death, whenever the Lord has chosen for it to be, is something for which the Lord will surely have made me ready.

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