A FAITHFUL FAREWELL: Living Your Last Chapter with Love. By Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015. Xii + 143 pages.
Is there such a thing as a good death? That is, can a person face death with all of its complexity with a sense that one’s life is filled with love? With the increasing capacity of technology to extend life, growing numbers of people are dying in hospitals, often dying hooked up to machines. On the other hand, the hospice movement has come emerged to offer a very different pathway from life to death. It has proven very helpful to the dying and to their families. There are, it would seem choices in how one dies, whether with fear or with love.
As a pastor I am called upon to walk with both the dying and their families. It is a blessed ministry, but is often a difficult one. For some death is something to be feared and fought to the bitter end. Others, though not seeking death, choose to take the path of faith and find joy and hope and peace in the midst of the reality that death is near at hand. While technology can prolong life, at times it simply prolongs suffering. Knowing where that line is to be drawn is not always to discern. What we need is resources that can help us navigate life and death.
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre has written wonderful and spiritually sensitive exploration of the journey toward death. She writes as a person of faith who has walked with the dying as a hospice volunteer. She also has come to understand that her own life journey involves aging and eventual death. The interplay of these two realities—her own mortality and the mortality of others—has allowed her to write this book in the first person. McEntyre is currently professor of medical humanities at the University of California Berkeley and a former English professor at Westmont College. I am not sure what medical humanities, except that it suggests that the scientifically rooted profession of medicine requires the balancing gift of the humanities so that physicians and others in the medical field are able to see their patients as human beings and not simply as machines.
This book is written in the first person so the reader is drawn into the conversation. It is easy to forget as you read the book that she isn’t the one who is dying. I had to go back to the introductory chapter as I read the book to make sure this wasn’t a testimony of her own journey. It is clear, however, that McEntyre has been listening closely to the stories and concerns of the persons she has been attending to as a hospice volunteer.
The book is comprised of fifty-four reflections, each running two to three pages in length. Each chapter addresses some aspect of the dying process. Topics include pain, privacy, regrets, doubt, memories, anger, new identity, the bad days and the good days (two different chapters). In an introductory essay, which is titled "Dealing with Dying," McEntyre writes of the "slow leave-taking" that many go through. This journey involves "a variety of difficulties, uncertainties, adjustments, and surprises." There are physical, spiritual, and emotional issues to deal with. She tries to identify some of these challenges and surprises in her reflections. The reason she has chosen to write in the first person is that she hopes that this "will give them an immediacy they might not have otherwise, and make them more a sharing of a common condition than advice from across a chasm that divides health from illness" (p. xi). The final chapter/reflection is titled “The Body of Christ.” This is, after all, a book about living out a “faithful farewell.” She writes something that I’ve heard others confess—their sense of separation from the church as their days draw to a close. But she offers a word of hope and connection as she closes the book:
I am a member of that body, whether or not I ever again gather with others inside a church. I will take my place in the great circle. I already pray from a new vantage point for those who remain, that they might be equipped for the global challenges they face that they might be spared the worst of the wars and droughts and famines that afflict this ailing planet and that they might contribute to its healing with a sturdy faith that will see them through. (pp. 134-135).
This isn’t a book filled with sentimental tropes. It’s very honest in its reflections, with both the ups and downs present. There is joy and there is anger. But there is also faith. This is seen in each of the reflections, for they are closed with a prayer that speaks to the issue at hand.
I expect that different people will read the book differently, depending on their own life situation. A person who is in hospice might read it seeking wisdom and guidance as they wrestle with the inevitability of death. They might find it useful to read a reflection at the moment they are going through that particular aspect of the dying process. Family members might find that reading the book helps them deal with the suffering and varying moods of their love one, offering words of wisdom and understanding. As McEntytre points out in different essays the dying may want someone present to hold their hand or even hold them close. Or they may wish to be left alone. Knowing how to respond to these differing needs can be challenging. I know that one of the greatest challenges facing families is how to talk about death. Often the person dying wants to have that conversation, but family and friends don’t want to have the conversation. This makes it difficult to be truly present. Reading the devotionals, one step at a time, can help family and friends be truly present in a way that is supportive. It is not easy watching a loved one die, but denial helps no one.
Speaking as one who is a pastor, I can say that this book is essential reading for those in my profession. It is a must read because we struggle with the question of how to be present to the dying. We want to help, but our offers of help can prove to be counterproductive unless we understand what a person is experiencing. So, when do we give encouragement and when do we simply listen? In a chapter titled "Uncomfortable Comfort," McEntyre offers this word of wisdom:
Some days people's efforts to comfort me make me feel loved, cared for, and less afraid. Other days they irritate me unreasonably: I don't want my pillow plumped or my hand held or news from the book club or even the flowers whose mild scent give s me a little waves of nausea. I don't always want visitors, but I don't want to hurt the feelings of those whose visits are well-intended, if ill-timed. And even the visitors I do want don't always manage to leave me feeling more peaceful or grateful or kindly. I don't want illness to make me irritable, but it does (p. 65).
Sometimes we feel like it is our duty to pay a visit, but sometimes (as I’ve discovered myself) that visit isn’t welcomed. It’s not that the person dislikes us, but they are simply not in a position to receive company. Our presence is more work for them, and offers no comfort. It’s not always easy knowing when to go or when to stay away, but learning to discern those feelings is essential to successful ministry, and the book offers us guidance.
Death is not a subject we relish dealing with, but it is part of life, and thus we must deal with it. But we can deal with death faithfully, and McEntyre is willing to show us the way forward. So, by all means -- take and read!