Monday, May 25, 2009

Death is Not Dying: A Message We Need to Hear

Over the past couple of weeks I've seen numerous links to this place. This is the site of Rachel Barkey, a young wife and mother who has terminal cancer. If you go there, you can read her story, see some pictures and watch a video. Some of the people I know who've linked to her site have said the video testimony has had a most profound impact on them.

The first time I saw the link and was told what it was about, I immediately thought to myself "I am NOT going there". I know that sounds like a silly thing to say or think, so I'd like to explain why I reacted that way.

In April 1995 my first husband was informed that the chemotherapy was no longer working, and he had the choice to make to continue it in hopes that it would work eventually, or switch to a pain control treatment only. He had already been battling cancer himself for four years, and he was finally worn out. He opted for the pain control and was given a prognosis of 4-6 months. He passed away exactly 4 months later, to the day. I was 30, he was 32.

For those 4 years and 7 months that he battled his cancer, his imminent death and dying was a constant theme in our home and our life. We both struggled every day to make sense of it, live with the right view of it, do all the right things, say all the right things and hope for all the good things. It was an exhausting struggle, far more for him than for me. When the fight was finally over just a few days before he passed, he asked me to call our pastor (when it was time) and tell him the GOOD news. He was very precise in what he wanted me to say. He instructed me to tell him "I have great news, Ben's cancer is GONE!" He was quite serious about this and wanted everyone to know that he didn't actually lose his battle with cancer, but that he WON the battle and finally went Home to Jesus. He said "cancer can have my body, I'm going to see Jesus face to face, I WIN!". He had a tremendously encouraging attitude, at the end of his life.

When it was all over I came home and fell apart. It took a very long time to get myself back together, but I didn't come out of that the same person I was going into it. You never do. In my case, it was a very hard road back to a sense of "normal" life.

Over the years since then my reaction to death and dying has been somewhat strange. Some days I'm extremely sensitive to it and can't really handle the conversations (all the painful emotions tend to surface), while other days I sort of find myself slipping into auto-pilot mode and discussing the clinical or medical aspects of it the way I often had to during Ben's battle. When you're the primary caretaker of a terminally ill person, you find you must learn a whole new language that includes medical terminology and pharmacuetical understanding, that the average person doesn't know. I was actually quite comfortable learning this new language and having that understanding because it made me feel like I was at least contributing in his care on a deeper level. Contributing more than just paying the bills, keeping the household running and trying to maintain some sense of normalcy in a very abnormal home life. I learned through experience that this is quite normal for those who were in the same role I was.

During that time in my life, the subject of death and dying was an every day reality for me. When it was over, it was still an every day reality for me and still is to this very day. It's impossible not to think about it, when the one who passed away was your spouse and the father of your children. Death changes the course of life for those surviving, and conversations will inevitably come up where the loved one's name or their influence or an event they were part of will be mentioned. In a very literal way, the passing of that person is with you, for the rest of your life. While you do get beyond the initial mourning and sorrow that is part of grief, you never really "get over it".

So, when I read of the way Rachel Barkey's testimony impacted so many people, I understood. It made sense to me why so many Christian people are linking to it, talking about it, blogging about it, and incredibly grateful for the grace she was given to share her heart. I understood and it made sense because we greatly fear death and dying. We fear the pain that may be associated with it, we fear the sorrow and the grief we'll suffer as survivors, and we fear what life may hold for those we love, if we're the one diagnosed with the terminal illness. We all want to be able to "die well" but most people (if we're honest) simply do not want to die at all, and avoid all the physical, emotional and spiritual pain and suffering that death brings with it. For the survivors, it can be a most extremely difficult process to go through and for the one dying, the anxiety and sorrow they feel for the ones who will greive the most can be overwhelming. In both cases, God's grace, mercy, guidance and wisdom is what is required. Learning how to "let go and let God" may sound cheesy and cliche, but it is exactly what must be done to weather this kind of life storm. It is also one of the hardest things any one of us will ever do. So I understood why so many have said so many good things about this sister's testimony, because we desperately crave comforting insight from someone who is closer to death than we are. We want and we need to see strong examples of grace and assurance. Death is a subject that people in general do not like discuss and even among Christians it carries the same weight with it that we simply prefer to avoid discussion of it. Espcecially for those recently touched by death or imminent death however, we need voices among us that can and will speak with grace, truth, comfort and assurance and remind us of what we need to hear.

So why didn't I want to watch Rachel Barkey's video? It's quite simple really. I knew it would make me cry. I knew it would stir up feelings that I try very hard to push away. I knew it would cause me to think more closely about death and dying, when I honestly prefer not to think about it at all, unless I have to. I have had to think about it and deal with it much more often in my 44 years than I ever wanted to, and it can be overwhelmingly painful.

What I found rather remarkable, is that recently in a very short time span I have had to think about death again. A book I ordered came in the mail, and the name of the book is Grieving: Our Path Back to Peace. I ordered it because its one of those books I've wanted for a long time, and believe it will not only help me (grief doesn't have an expiry date, just in case you wondered) but will continue to be a help to me. Not long after the book arrived, my Uncle Merle passed away rather unexpectedly. During the same time frame, the local news media reporting on the Tori Stafford case announced they'd made arrests and that the suspects were charged with murder. They haven't located the 8 year old's body yet, but they have enough evidence to conclude she is no longer with us. Because my kids knew that little Tori was kidnapped, I also had to tell them this news as well. Add to this, multiple links coming through for Rachel Barkey's video. It almost seemed too much, and I just didn't want to cry again. I'd cried for Uncle Merle and my family, I'd cried for that precious little girl and her family, and I didn't want to watch a young mother talk about dying and cry all over again. Someone once told me that crying is good for you, it's God's way of washing pain out of your heart. Sometimes that makes sense. All the various circumstances surrounding death, dying, illness, violence and sin in the world can make for some rather unpleasant (but needed) conversations.

So, even though I didn't want to cry again, I did listen to the audio portion of Rachel Barkey's message just today. If you're one of the very few that has not heard it yet, may I encourage you to set aside the hour it will take to let this sister bless your heart? It may very well make you cry, but she has something very important to say that the body of believers really needs to hear, and be reminded of once again. In addition, I would also strongly suggest you take a look at Rachel's reading list found at deathisnotdying.com. I have some of the books on that list, I've read some of them, and I am going to make it my personal goal to read the rest she has listed here.

She was a genuine inspiration to me today. May God richly bless her and her family with peace, and comfort.