Comfort, holding hands, a prayer or two, a gentle touch – can ease the way forward and out to whatever comes after death. With hope and comfort provided in the process.
Well the holidays are finally over! For David and me, the holidays included our wedding anniversary on Dec. 21 – observed over lunch at the Dallas airport as we slowly wended our way to southern California to spend Christmas with my youngest son, Kevin, and his family – joining the millions of others who, one way or another, traveled over Thanksgiving and Christmas to spend the season with those they love. Despite the fact that we missed our connection while traveling there because of “equipment” issues flying out of Richmond and stayed overnight at a Dallas airport hotel, we had a wonderful week in California. (See the blog’s lead photo of Riverside at Christmastime, and the first photo below – my family at a small, regional airport, minus a daughter-in-law who was doing her physician duty that day.) After seven days of being gone, however, we were also very glad to be home to our friends, church, and usual routines.

The day after we got home, Sunday the 29th, there was a horrifying front-page story in The New York Times titled “Happily Married for 60 Years. Then Alzheimer’s. And a Gun.” (See second photo below.) Briefly, it’s the story of Richard and Alma Shaver, she 80 years old and he 79, high-school sweethearts and devoted spouses for six decades. The story, of course, includes their last years – Alma slipping slowly into dementia and Richard doing the best he could to care for her till the end. To start at the end, one warm, sunny day in June, Alma was in the upstairs bedroom asleep, “the only peace she ever seemed to find. Mr. Shaver … crawled onto the canopy bed – the one they had shared for years – and shot his wife. Then he lay down beside her and shot himself.”

To their two grown daughters, who tried unsuccessfully for years to get Richard to accept help with caring for his wife and their mother, the thought of their last moments “makes them collapse inside when they reflect upon it all: the thought of their father in his last hour on that bed. … They imagine him lying next to his dead wife, placing the towel over his face, slipping the gun into his mouth, telling himself it was time to pull the trigger. He must have felt so alone.”

A horror story in my view. Turns out that Richard also had terminal cancer and so he apparently saw nothing ahead but darkness … and death. And of course, under the circumstance, that bleak vision is unarguable. And the fact of approaching death – for every one of us at some point – as they say, “no one gets out of this place alive” – was and is a fact of life. But the fact that Richard chose to deny all help, to go it alone, to refuse any kind of care – from their daughters, from a simple cleaning service, from home healthcare aids, and finally from doctors or hospice service – made their ending and its manner a horrifying specter. That didn’t have to be.

Let me be clear that I am not pointing a finger of condemnation in this particular case and after the fact. I didn’t know them, of course, and I only know what I read in the account of their life and deaths. But it was a distressing account because although all deaths are hard – both to those who are slipping out of this life and to those they leave behind – I believe there are routes on that journey that are more desirable than going it alone.

In fact, as I have raised over and over in my writing, humans are communal creatures, not meant to go it alone. To quote a recent article in The Christian Century (see fourth photo below) that sums up the point in three sentences, “What is a Person? Quite simply, we are not persons in isolation. The person I am is literally inconceivable apart from the people in my life. We are who we’ve loved.” (The Christian Century, Dec. 18, 2019.)

As clergy who has attended many deaths over the years, and as someone who has stood by two husbands who have slowly died – one from dementia and its aftereffects and one from prostate cancer – I know firsthand the resources that are available – moral support and love from family and friends, other clergy, hospice caregivers and home health aids, and healthcare facilities. And I’m not a Polyanna about these resources that one pays for in the community. They are limited and sometimes of less than desirable quality. But nonetheless, the person by the bed is still supported and is not alone in the last throes of a loved one’s dying.

I recently learned about the role of the “death doula” or death midwife – someone apparently paid to attend to the whole journey. Like the midwife who ushers into the world the family’s new baby, a death midwife or doula ushers into the dying process the one making the journey from here to there. Apparently intended in many cases to supplement hospice care, “practitioners perform a large variety of services, including but not limited to creating death plans, and providing spiritual, psychological, and social support before and just after death.” I couldn’t help but think that such support has historically been provided by clergy – at least the spiritual support and care for the dying and their family. But then, many folks don’t have a clergy person in their life, don’t attend any kind of church … “none of the above.” And even when clergy are available, they usually can’t give the time to 24-hour-a-day care.

And the scary thought is that we are a society with increasing numbers of loners – of folks who are lonely – and when need arises, have no one to turn to for help and support. As Nicholas Kristof noted in a recent piece on loneliness (see last photo below), “isolation isn’t just depressing. It can be deadly.” He says “people who are alone are less likely to go to doctors’ appointments or  to take medicine … and resent nagging from loved ones, but it can keep (them) alive.” Quoting a researcher on loneliness and its effects, “if we could tackle loneliness … people would feel stronger, more resilient, more optimistic about the future.”

Admittedly, Alma and Richard Shafer didn’t have much of a future. And none of us will either, in the end … at least in this world. But I believe they could have had a better ending. Maybe there isn’t such a thing really as a “good death.” But I think there is such a thing as a better death than murder and then suicide. The ties that bind – family, friends, and community caregivers – are both a matter of a better life for the still living and certainly a matter of a better death in the end.

My views, folks. Again, having been there with loved ones and others over the years who were dying – comfort, holding hands, a prayer or two, a gentle touch – can ease the way forward and out to whatever comes next. With hope and comfort provided in the process.