Broadly speaking, each of us is dying; death is inevitable for the mortal creatures we are. Our mortality can be an important thing to remember, helping us to stay focused on the things that really matter in life — to spend less time worrying that the person in front of us in line has 15 items (when the sign clearly says 12!), and more time with our loved ones, even when that time together can be challenging.
It’s not healthy to be too obsessed with death, of course, and worrying about it can paralyze us in unhelpful ways. For the most part, though, it’s good to remember that we don’t have “all the time in the world,” and to tell those around us, “thank you,” “I’m sorry,” and, “I love you.”
As a hospice chaplain, I spend a lot of time with people in the last stage of their lives, helping them and their families. Mortality is not an abstract concept to them; it bears down on their daily lives, the unwelcome visitor. Mortality brings a lot of baggage along with it.
Some people are worried about pain and discomfort. Some people are worried about what happens after we die. But many, if not most of the people I talk with, are worried about those they are going to leave behind.
We find Moses in that situation, knowing he will die without being able to cross over to the Promised Land, accepting his own mortality but worrying about those he will leave behind. Even those of us whose life and legacy can’t compare to that of Moses worry about those people our lives have touched, those we care about, knowing that we will have to say goodbye.
Moses trusted in God, even when God’s judgement seemed against him. Moses was granted a clarity about the time granted to him that most of us do not have; but despite the decree that he would not enter the Promised Land, Moses knew that God had entrusted him to lead that nation out of captivity, and ultimately out of the wilderness.
Moses knew the troubles that nation would face, that crossing over the river Jordan was not the end of their trials. There would be no miraculous transformation on that crossing, and the quarrelsome spirit he had strived against for 40 years would persist even in the land of milk and honey. How much he must have struggled, wishing that he could continue to guide them in body and spirit!
Foreseeing the time he would have to say goodbye, Moses was able to leave the Israelites the Law to guide to their behavior, even as he knew the rebellion that was within their hearts would persist. He was able to appoint a leader, who could guide them into the Promised Land so that they could finally leave behind their wilderness.
This was a rare opportunity. For most of the families I meet, there is a sense of who will assume responsibility, who will keep the family together, but God does not tend to name the successors for families. That person struggles both with the loss, as well as the responsibility for helping everyone else move forward.
One of the things that comes to mind when talking with families is a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr, often shorted to, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime.” It helps us remember that the projects and people we’re invested in, whether they’re families, businesses, churches, or other organizations, have value in part because they outlive us. Nothing is settled, nothing is complete: if there is life, if there is a future, there are only questions and wishes.
The rest of Niebuhr’s quote captures this: “therefore we must be saved by hope.” There comes a time when we must let go, must say goodbye, and trust in God’s mercy, both for ourselves and for those we love.
Many of the people I meet have that hope, that sense that God watches over us and brings us home in the fullness of time.
I am often asked about the suffering that accompanies the disease, how God could will or even allow it. I don’t have a good answer for that: I only know that God is with us through the suffering, and in our grief. Through the difficult final days, God is with us, watching over us, giving us the strength and perseverance we need, both for those who are facing life’s end, and their families.
The “i’s” are never dotted, and the “t’s” are never crossed. Somehow, life continues on, even as our life is fundamentally altered with the passing of a loved one.
I sometimes pause and wonder about the people around me, in the grocery store and in traffic. Who among them is worrying about losing a parent, a spouse, a child, a friend?
And rather than getting irritated, I ask myself, have I told the people around me, “thank you,” “I’m sorry,” or “I love you”?
Chaplain Craig Dove is with Community Care Hospice.