At the heart of finding meaning at the end of life is gratitude. It’s easy to feel grateful when things are going well, but could we be grateful even for this time?
The complete sermon can be read below:
This past August I celebrated my 70’th birthday and it was tough. In an email to a friend I told her that I couldn’t believe it…and I really couldn’t. It felt like there had been a mistake. I checked my birth certificate just in case.
Many of you here this morning helped me celebrate my 60`th birthday at the Royal Ashburn. I felt great as I recited the mantra `Sixty is the new forty, sixty is the new forty’. It was a real upbeat occasion and I cherish the memory. Turning seventy, however, was a very different experience.
Thankfully, I recovered quickly. What helped was a notation in a birthday card – “It’s not the years in your life…but the life in your years that counts”. It also helped that Barry Gibb turned 70 on Sept. 1 and he’s stayin’ alive.
In the words of Doctor Robert Buckman, oncologist and writer which he chose for the title of one of his books, “I’m Not Dead Yet”.
Having recovered, at least partially from a serious illness, Dr. Buckman called the Contracts Dept. at the BBC to restart his radio series. The man in the Contracts Department was terribly apologetic. 'I'm sorry I didn't get the contracts to you, I thought you were dead.'
That was in 1980. He finally did die thirty years later in his sleep while flying from Toronto to London.
And so – all this by way of saying that I am not and you are not dead yet – but there’s a good likelihood that one day we will be facing a terminal diagnosis.
When all is right with the world it’s easy to feel grateful. But what about feeling thankful or fortunate or perhaps even blessed following a terminal diagnosis… when our doctor has told us that we have only a finite time left to live?
What might serve us well at a time like this would be a sense of calm and inner peace and yet we initially, at least, experience a myriad of negative feelings – anger, denial , shock, depression. Is it possible to be grateful even for this time?
I first knew that this was a question I wanted to lift up to you when, in February of last year I watched a film on Frontline with Dr. Atul Gawande, a writer for the New Yorker and a Boston surgeon. It was called “Being Mortal”. In the film Dr. Gawande explores the relationships doctors have with patients who are nearing the end of life.
We meet patient Jeff Shields who says: “The last couple of weeks, I’ve been surrounded by family and friends and it’s been terrific. You know, some of the best days of my life, I must say. But then there’s a downward trend that’s more rapid than I had expected. I felt great during that time, and my body was in rapid decline. Since then, my mind has been in rapid decline. I get confused, so— but I’m still a happy guy.”
We hear Dr. Gawande: “Jeff Shields’s words about his last weeks being his happiest seemed especially profound to me because they were among his last words. He died just hours afterwards.”
Jeff Shields referred to his last days on earth as some of the best days, his happiest days.
Why would this be? How could it possibly be? How could anyone be thankful at this last stage of one’s life?
In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu – “When you have a potentially terminal disease it concentrates the mind wonderfully. It gives a new intensity to life. You discover how many things you have taken for granted – the love of your spouse, the Beethoven symphony, the dew on a rose, the laughter on the face of your grandchildren.”
Jeff Shields was surrounded by family and friends. He felt their love… and I can imagine that these words held true for him.
The diagnosis of a terminal illness marks the end, it also serves as a beginning - a chance to consider what the remaining time means to us. We ask, ‘What can I do? What can I say?’
I think that it’s quite possible that the end of life could actually be the most meaningful time. As long as we are alive there is always more – more knowledge, more understanding of others, more revelation, more love to be given and received.
Jeff’s mind was concentrated on his final goal – and was centred on managing his illness, minimizing pain and living as long as possible with an acceptable quality of life.
No doubt he told his family what they meant to him and in reviewing events in his life came to know, perhaps for the first time, the meaning his life has held for those who love him. Grateful for this time, his life was enriched as he found himself surrounded by more love than he had known when he was healthy, as people revealed more about their feelings towards him than they ever had before.
As his life came to its natural close, Jeff was grateful. In the words of Sufi philosopher Khalil Gibran – “Your living is determined not so much by what life brings to you as by the attitude you bring to life; not so much by what happens to you as by the way your mind looks at what happens.”
I have seen many end of life scenarios – during the chaplaincy component of my Master of Divinity with a Chicago hospice, as a chaplain in longterm care, nursing home volunteer, Durham hospice volunteer and in my own family.
I have witnessed the attitude people choose to bring to their lives as they approach death. And I have witnessed the consequences of those attitudes.
Recently, I visited with a man I shall call Bill. Bill was an ordained Pentecostal minister although he had not served a congregation for several years. He was unable to accept his diagnosis. He reasoned that in the words of the 23’rd Psalm
“The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want” that God would not keep him in a state of wanting restored health but would cure him. He told me that if God didn’t cure him – following many prayer sessions attended by family and friends then he was
writing God off.
Bill was extremely distraught, and insisted that someone be with him 24/7. In fact even as I visited he would be on the phone to members of his family to whom he was known to call during the night as a support worker sat by his bedside. His wife was a complete mess.
You see, Bill was so focused on making deals with God that there was no place in his dying for gratitude.
At the same time I was visiting Bill I was also visiting Helen. Helen was also a fundamentalist Christian but had chosen a different attitude to her dying. Of course she wanted to live as long as possible but she had accepted the fact that her days were limited. Instead of bargaining with God she trusted that his will was unfolding as he intended. I commented to Helen how peaceful she appeared.
We talked about what her life has meant. What if she had never lived? She made a difference.
Think about that question. What if you had never lived?
So much has happened, much has been possible, much has come about because of you.
Because of you there was more kindness.
Because of you there was more laughter.
Think about what you have brought to your living. Good morning greetings to passersby, rescued animals, charities that you supported, children whom you offered your support.
And finally the love ….
As UU minister Forrest Church whom you heard Dave speak about last Sunday said- “The goal is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for. The one thing that can’t be taken away from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we go.”
Of course there are things that make the experience of dying more tolerable than others.
For instance - One of my favourite TV shows is “Hot in Cleveland” It’s about four women, including Betty White, aged 93 and their various exploits. They all live together and the predicaments they get into are hilarious. In one recent episode Betty’s character says to one of the women who is thinking about marriage to one particular guy: “Having you for a wife will make dying a lot easier.”
Following a terminal diagnosis life continues. You eat healthily, exercise, perhaps replace activities with new ones, listen to favourite music, do something you have always wanted to do.
Even making provisions for those we leave behind gives a measure of satisfaction.
As time goes by we are thankful for words that express what we have meant to those who have known us. People may tell us more about their feelings towards us than they ever have before. After all, we won’t be around for our celebration of life. Now is a chance to be treated with great kindness, tenderness, a time to be listened to.
For Jeff Shields these were some of the best days of his life.
As Dr. Buckman said, I’m Not Dead Yet. And you’re not dead and I’m not dead but hey, how about living as if we’re dying.
I’ve heard it said that a person who is dying can teach us how to live. It’s often when people receive a terminal diagnosis that they learn to take one day at a time, to deeply appreciate all that surrounds them, to openly express their love, to listen non-judgmentally, to experience new and pleasurable things.
Why wait to feel grateful for this life we have been given?
When all is right with the world it’s easy to feel grateful. But what about feeling thankful or fortunate or perhaps even blessed following a terminal diagnosis when our doctor has told us that we have only a finite time left to live?
Could we be grateful even for this time?
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