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A good death


When I was doing my summer of Clinical Pastoral Education (that’s a chaplaincy internship with a lot of group processing and reflection), we spent an entire week talking about good deaths and good goodbyes. I remember sitting around a faux-wood conference table and swiveling slightly in the black ergonomic chairs that populated the hospital like mushrooms on a damp log, as our supervisor, Marc, spoke to us about the holy process of death and dying. The concepts made sense; my Nana had died just six months earlier, and the fact that it had been peaceful – in her sleep just like she wanted – was a sacred comfort to all of us who were left behind.

Since that week in 2009 I’ve found myself returning to that conference room from time to time as death and endings arise in my ministry. I have frequently heeded Marc’s wisdom when it comes to saying goodbye (tell the person you love them; tell them you forgive them; ask for their forgiveness; thank them). I’ve even spoken with members about what a good death would look like for them. But this past January, his words about death being holy became incarnate in my life.

I woke up in the middle of the night on the eve of a snowstorm and knew immediately that something was wrong. Turning on the light, I found my 16-year-old dog, Cyrus, waving his head back and forth. Kneeling beside him and taking his head in my hands, I looked at his eyes. They were still. Had they been moving from side to side too, I might have thought he’d be OK – I might have suspected it was just another bout of vertigo, from which he’d suffered just a year earlier. It was his steady gaze that said, “This is serious. This is it.”

Lying down on the floor next to him, I stroked his ears – they had always been the spot where his softest fur grew. He settled and fell back to sleep. I did too. When I took him to the vet in the morning, she confirmed what I had suspected: Cyrus had had a stroke. If he improved at all, it wouldn’t be much; he wasn’t going to be able to live the doggy life that he loved ever again. We agreed that the time had come for euthanasia.

I said goodbye to him the way that Marc had taught us. It seemed a little silly to do it with a dog, but Cyrus had been my faithful partner through the most painfully transformative years of my life. I needed to know that it was a good goodbye. The vet gave him the tranquilizer – just enough to put him into a doze before the actual euthanasia drug. But he didn’t make it to the second drug; Cyrus stopped breathing shortly after the sedative took hold.

Cyrus’s death was a good one. He had lived a full and happy life. He didn’t suffer. I knew, and I think he knew, that this was the right time. And the fact that he had a good death made my grieving easier – there was a sense of God’s peace in the midst of it. In fact, the particularities of his dying felt like a truly sacred gift to me. And in the last six months, that gift has left me with a great sense of responsibility when it comes to endings.

When it comes to our physical deaths, we don’t have a lot of control – and those are not the endings that I’ve been ruminating upon. But in the course of my ministry I’ve witnessed or heard about plenty of other kinds of deaths that often leave wounds of grief that are just as deep. Marriages have fallen apart; friendships have ended; pastors have suddenly left churches that they served for decades. And it has struck me lately that, in my experience, we don’t spend a lot of time in talking about how we share God’s peace in those painful moments of ending. As witnesses to the resurrection – as people who proclaim the promise of new life after death – perhaps we should. Perhaps the ministry of goodbye, of endings, of communicating the peace that surpasses all understanding in the moment of leaving – perhaps this deserves more prominence in our discipleship.

I’ve had enough truly painful partings in my own life to know that this is rarely easy. How do we find the grace to thank a partner in the midst of a messy divorce? How do we ask for and offer forgiveness when a friendship fractures? These things require us to slow down and create space – to allow ourselves to be grateful in the midst of pain or to open the possibility of forgiveness when holding onto anger would feel more satisfying (I should know, I’m an expert). Slowing down and creating space are countercultural ideas in our schedule-to-the-brim society. Yet, it seems to me that doing so in the midst of a parting is a vital spiritual discipline, one that opens the way for God’s peace to enter into our lives at a time when we might feel most fragile.

In the six months since Cyrus died, I can’t say that I’ve gotten very good at this particular spiritual discipline – and honestly, I haven’t had much practice and I’m glad for that. I have no doubt that it will be painfully difficult to bring those words into life. But it gives me hope to think that God’s peace could be lurking in the midst of an ending; it gives me hope to think that I could participate in bearing such peace to another – and so find peace myself.

Jennifer Barchi 2Jennifer Barchi is serving as the solo pastor at Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland.