“O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.” Psalm 131.
The call comes late Saturday morning. “Alwyn’s wife is dying. Come quickly.” I had visited her earlier in the week. She was having her second round of chemotherapy for recurrence of her cancer after ten years. The cancer had come back like a vengeance and she was being treated with all the heavy drugs and then some. I had instantly fallen in love with her at that first visit… a sweet, sweet lady, probably in her sixties, fighting for her life with great grace. Her face was framed by a bright bandanna to cover her hair loss. She was pale, weak but cheerful and hopeful. I enter her room now for a second time, but this time she is in intensive care. She lies in the bed immobile in a deep coma very near death. Her eyes are open, her face now ashen, her breathing very irregular.
She is surrounded by family and friends, but one relative is in the corner talking on a cell phone, and two others are in another corner discussing her medical condition and what did and did not happen. I think how we know so little and are so poorly prepared to help a loved one have a sacred death. I think of Megory Anderson’s very practical writings of how death is another miracle, like being born. Our job is to be the midwife so that the journey be as sacred as possible, focusing totally on the needs of the one dying. I wish I had brought my harp or called a friend who knows even better than I how to play the harp for the dying. I want to tell the family to bring in Shari’s favorite music and flowers and a quilt or other sacred objects and photographs and sit by her and read her favorite stories or poems or Psalms to her.
I recall how sometimes reading a favorite bedtime prayer or children’s story seems to bring a special peace to the one dying and to the family. I have seen a candle lit at the head of the bed to call everyone to the sacredness of the time if it is allowed. I want to tell them to come and sit beside her and touch and hold her and just be present with her. But I am meeting this family for the first time, and am afraid to intrude.
I stand silent in the room, my own breath loud in my ears. I look around the room to try to find answers as to what to do next when I suddenly stop, my breathing now inaudible. There below me in a wheel chair at the head of the bed beside this still beautiful gravely ill woman is her 93-year-old mother gently holding her hand and calmly and softly whispering to her dying daughter. This frail mother slowly looks up and almost inaudibly says, “I keep talking to Shari. I don’t know if she hears me, but I must keep talking to her. Do you think she hears me?” “Yes, I think she hears,” I instinctively answer. This aged, suffering mother knows what to do, what to say, how to sooth her precious child so near death and is modeling for the rest of us how to help someone through a sacred passage.
Shari’s mother and I ask the others in the room if they would like to say prayers for the dying and help us anoint this dear one. The room becomes silent, and they now join us in prayers as we circle her bed. I slowly walk out of her room and the hospital. I do not want to lose this image of mother and child. Driving home I keep seeing Michelangelo’s sculpture of La Pieta in St. Peter’s in the Vatican, except now the statue is of an aged mother, in a wheel chair who will soon be holding her dead child as best she can, as only mothers know how to do.
Prayer at the Burial of a Child
O God, whose beloved Son took children into his arms and blessed them: Give us grace to entrust this child N. to your never-failing care and love, and bring us all to your heavenly kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. BCP, p. 494.
Megory Anderson, Attending the Dying, A Handbook of Practical Guidelines, Morehouse, 2005.
Story from 'Healing Presence.' Dr. Seibert is a pediatric radiologist at Arkansas Children’s Hospital and the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences who has been an ordained deacon in the Diocese of Arkansas for nine years. She is a facilitator for the Community of Hope, Walking the Mourner’s Path and Trinity’s health ministry. She is also on the board of the National Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church. You can find about more Dr. Seibert and her books at www.temenospublishing.com.