Living Well/Dying Well

12 04 2013

Mem - mom on mountainPart Two:

Thanks to Michael Klassen for letting me use your journal entry as a framework for this post.

If you read my previous post, you know that my mother passed away on March 11, 2012 of Pancreatic Cancer. For the past 15 years, mom lived with my family, making our household a lively community with seven people in all. So much could be said about the past fifteen years, but what I want to reflect on here are the sixty-four days after she was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer and how she handled it on a personal/spiritual level.

Mom came to know Jesus and follow him as a child (you can read her story on this blog) and over the years she grew to know Him and love Him in a way that transformed her life. It was this relationship that helped her face her living days and her dying days so beautifully. This is what she modeled for us:

1. Be open About Dying

Mom didn’t typically mince words; she didn’t “beat around the bush,” so to speak. Mom could be honest but she was also humble and loving, so it worked.

On January 6th my husband Michael, son Nathan and I sat in a hospital room with mom and she told us the bad news: the doctors had told her she had cancer and it could mean two months to live. We all felt like we had been punched in the stomach, but we were also amazed at how mom was able to speak so openly about it. She had poise and presence. She was honest and, as mom always was, she was direct.

From then on, there was no tip-toeing around the subject. We never needed to ease into what might have been the uncomfortable conversations associated with dying; it was completely acceptable to discuss it. I would look at mom while we talked, and I could see that she had complete peace in her eyes; at times I would ask, “Is this uncomfortable for you?” and she assured me she was just fine.

After she passed away, I sifted through her journals and there I read her spiritual reflections about life and death; it was completely evident that over the years she had developed a confidence that she was in God’s hands; in life or death. No wonder she was such an open book. She had lived this way – learning to trust God with everything; being open was a natural response to how she had learned and lived.

Jesus spoke openly about his dying. Matthew 16:21 says Jesus began to show His disciples that he would suffer and be killed; He kept bringing it up! Following His lead, if He talked about it, why shouldn’t she?

Mom’s approach to the news was so helpful because the topic was open and on the table. Whether it was with her children, her grandchildren, friends and even strangers, mom seemed to want to allow people to talk to her about this mysterious thing called “death” and “eternity.” She felt an obligation to do it, like it was a last gift she could give.

All of us were able to talk to her about what she was feeling, and what she was thinking about along the way. We had terrific and unflinching conversations about life and death.  Mom didn’t let us pretend either: she was dying, and there were practical things to talk about.

When we discussed the topic of her “pending” memorial, we ended up writing her life-story together. I asked her, “Are you ok with this, with me talking about you in the past tense?” She was (I cried more than her). We went through pictures together and took care of practical business together. Mom never hid.

When she struggled she talked about this too. We prayed with her, cried with her, hugged her, and admitted what was in our hearts and on our minds. It was so honest.

What a beautiful and brave example my mom was to me in all of this. I will never ever forget how she, like the woman described in Proverbs 31, could even laugh at the days to come. My mom had an inner strength I aspire to.

2. Enjoy life right to the end

Jesus enjoyed life right to the end. Matthew 26:26 happens around a table, right before Jesus dies, and there He is eating and drinking with friends.

Mom loved being with her family and friends especially if it meant eating out at a great restaurant, having people in our home, or going on a great get away; an adventure! Mom loved lively conversation, amusing stories, and coming along for the ride whatever the destination. Oh how I will miss saying to her,

“Hey mom, want to come grocery shopping with me?”

Simple things mom never said no to. She was always such terrific company.

In mom’s “dying days” we squeezed some last things in:

  • We went out to dinner together…one last time
  • Our girls, mom and I were able to go on one more adventure, to a local resort (Sparkling Hills)…one last time.
  • When mom’s brother and sisters came, we were able to celebrate The Lord’s Supper (Communion) around the table…one last time.
  • I made some traditional dishes for her, even if she could only have one bite…one last time.
  • We had a family picture taken…one last time.
  • Mom made the effort to get to a Sunday church gathering…one last time.
  • She always said “yes” to visits so she could see people…one last time

Another incredibly precious tradition was started when she learned she had a short time to live. We began a 10:00 p.m. meeting we called “Story Time.” In 1989 mom began writing out stories of answered prayer – she kept 47 of them.  Mom would read these stories to our family during her last days.  Other friends and family would join in here and there and it became something absolutely unforgettable. We learned so many lessons through this and our love grew and grew.

One must live well to die well.

Incidentally, we decided to publish these stories so that they would continue to be told. Mom thought it was pretty funny that, at 75, she was going to become an author.

That was mom, enjoying life right to the end.

3. It would be preferable to live than to die

Jesus didn’t look forward to death; He prayed, asking if it might be avoided, even while wanting to be obedient to His calling.

Once, in the last week of mom’s life she suddenly said, “I don’t want to go yet!” This came as a surprise, because she was so looking forward to heaven.

As we thought about this we saw that while her communication was limited and her body was weak, she loved the intimacy of relationships from sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, friends, and sons and daughters. I was her primary caregiver and we had a natural intimate role reversal, no wonder she didn’t want to go!

I saw that, no matter how close people can be, there are still little rules relationships are governed by. As she walked through these dying days, any last “walls” came down. Mom did not hold back any affection from me. She held my face and gazed into my eyes with such love it absolutely made me hold my breath. I felt as if she was studying me to remember every detail. I could see how she didn’t want to let go of me.

One night as I tucked her into bed, she held her arms out to me three times and hugged me three times and, words limited at this point, she said with such feeling, “I love you, I love you, I love you immensely.

There are many, many good things about life and loving relationships and mom didn’t simply “check out.” She didn’t have a fatalist attitude, or give up. Mom savored life and valued the time she had left in a healthy way; it was natural to think, “I don’t want to let go just yet” because over a life-time she had developed wonderful friendships…they were hard to let go of, as it should be.

4. Forgive

Jesus forgave everyone, to the very end; even those mistreating Him when He died (Luke 23:34).

In Mom’s stories, you could see there were people who had made life challenging; there were people who had never made things right. Some things were still unresolved, but as she was dying she said, “In the end, what does it matter? It’s not worth holding on to. We must forgive.”

Mom demonstrated graciousness towards people; forgiveness and perspective. In her journal I found a list of people who had hurt or disappointed her; it wasn’t a grudge list, it was a prayer list surrounded by Scriptures about grace and forgiveness. It is easy to forgive in the end, if you have forgiven all the way along. She lived this out well.

This keeps speaking to me, this aspect of not clinging to grievances; not letting them steal joy. We must live our lives free from such hindrances, and act with generosity and forgiveness towards people.

5. Willing to die

It is hard to accept that a person actually has no options. In the beginning of all this, Mike was looking for other treatment options, other things to consider. Even when we knew the cancer was Stage 4, he was still brainstorming.

One day she looked at him and said with clarity and resolve, “You know Mike, God has extended my life longer than I was told I would live (she had been told at one point she might not live past 40 due to a Kidney problem that troubled her earlier in her life). If God still has something for me to do, then God will heal me. If He says, ‘That’s good now,’ then He will take me. So no, I won’t be spending my days hunting for ways to live. God is in control.”

What a trust she had in God to be able to say this; Mom knew her life was in God’s hands and she trusted Him with her death. She didn’t get caught up in asking “why” over and over. She didn’t go into “survival mode.” She was going to die as she lived, with complete confidence that God’s will would be done.

You have to think about this long before you get there; think about dying while you live so that you know what you know what you know. Mom did this and it served her, and all of us, well.

* * *

As I watched my mom face her last days on earth I said to our kids, “We are being given a gift right now. We might not understand it all just yet, but one day we are going to come to look at death with far less fear than many. My mom has modeled for us what it looks like to be a follower of Christ in life, and now facing death with a sense of hope and courage. This will change you if you let it, and it will give you a strength you never knew you had.”

Just before mom died she said something funny. She said, “How will I know when I am dead?”

I asked her what she meant and she said, “How will I know when I have died? I have never done this before. Will someone tell me?”

I said, “You won’t need anyone to tell you. Jesus will be there.”

She said, “Yes Jesus will be there and He will say, ‘Welcome here, Violet.’”

I said, “Yes, He will say, ‘Welcome here, Violet. Well done.’”

Yes. Well done, well done.

— Teresa Klassen

Part One — Pancreatic Cancer: Our Story

Part Two — Living Well/Dying Well

Part Three — Violet: Her Life Story

Part Four — Mother’s Day Tribute

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3 responses

12 04 2013
Pancreatic Cancer: Our Story | OneBrownLeaf

[…]  “Part Two” is simply titled “Living Well/Dying Well” and is more about how she handled the dying process on a personal level. […]

13 04 2013
Violet: Her Life Story | OneBrownLeaf

[…] Part Two: Living Well/Dying Well […]

16 04 2013
Melanie Friesen

What an amazing post. I cannot begin to imagine going through this difficult time. However, the power of knowing God and trusting in Him is really what it should be about! Trust in the Lord and rejoice! Really looking forward to more of your writings.
Mel Friesen

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