Thinking, talking and writing about dying, death and pain comes natural to me. I guess because I’ve seen it up close in my family as a teenager and later as a volunteer at a local hospital and grief center. I am burdened by it. Sometimes the weight is existential (what is the meaning?) and at others it’s practical (what can I do for this person in pain?). I pray for people in the mornings right after I wake up because it’s the most undistracted time of the day when my intercessory meditations are primed and ready to go. I’ve found that praying for people at night makes it hard for me to sleep. At the moment I have several friends with children who are suffering life threatening illnesses. They each have a spot I wish they did not have on my prayer list. I write about dying, death, and pain in our book coming out this November. And you thought the book was only about chocolate?
I think about these suffering children enduring painful treatments, hoping for more time and a cure. They may very well die and leave a grieving family behind. During these times my faith is not so much tested as it is worn. I remember when my father’s former-Marine-Corp-hard-body was riddled and deteriorating with metastatic lung cancer. I was 13 and 14 during his illness. The church prayer group came over at all hours of the day and night. They told me to never speak of death because it was doubt and that Jesus would not heal him if I had doubt. The problem was that he kept getting sicker and I recall praying, “God, where are you? Please hurry up because he’s not going to make it much longer. Please!” It was my fervent prayer. I prayed so very hard, full of desperation. He died and then my faith hung by a thin thread. A thread that I did not look at, tend to, or care about for many years.
Now I have years of paying attention to the thread of faith in my life holding it together with real life experiences, searching, talking, asking tough questions, reading, meditating and lots of prayer. But when my friend’s little child might die from bone cancer there simply are no answers. None. There’s nothing to hide behind. There is no “help”. All of the religions of the world have methods of resolving this kind of suffering. The ones I am most familiar with are Christianity and Buddhism. My proclamation that there are no answers is itself a “method.” We want something we can hold on to, something, anything. And if there’s nothing to hold on to then can we at least uncover some modicum of meaning? I am sorry to say this but probably not. Can we, after the fact, make meaning from it? You bet we can! But for those in the middle of the storm there is no meaning and not much to hold on to as we slide down the side of the cliff grabbing for everything in site. Will this branch stop me? Will this rock hold me? No and no.
That sounds pretty depressing. Well, it is. So if there are no answers what are we to do? It depends on who you are in this equation? If you are the friend of the parent with a possibly dying child then I am writing this to you. What can we do?
- Be present, be present, be present. Call your friend and tell her you are thinking of her. See if she can meet you for coffee.
- Listen. I am not good at this but a work in progress.
- Social media is nice but not a substitute for #1. Our fear and intimidation sometimes prevents us from #1 because the situation is so horrible . . . we’re afraid we will say the wrong thing. This is why #2 is critical. Meeting for coffee, giving your friend a hug and listening is never the wrong thing.
- Drop the platitudes and answers. It’s our nature to normalize everything but it really does not help.
- Remember that this is not about you or me and our tested faith. It’s about your friend only and what they need.
- Treasure your friend in your heart at certain times of the day. Maybe it’s the morning when you wake up or a first drink of tea. If you’re a praying person then please do that.
When my faith is worn, my prayers seemingly unheard, I am guilty of picking up my old trusty tools that give me comfort. My safe harbors. I’ll read my old stand-by books, talk to my friends, and search for answers just as in years past. But now I rely on my years of practice knowing that much of the fortress I’ve built can crumble away but I will always have my thread. I know it. Your thread will support you and the friends you love.