Last night I watched a video for my Hospice training, HBO’s Letting Go: A Hospice Journey. (I’m training as a volunteer and hoping to offer knitting one day a week to the residents of Solace, the inpatient facility.) It’s worth watching if you can deal with death and dying up close. It’s not graphic or sensational or religious.
It’s just a documentary about three people: a child with a brain disease, a middle-aged woman with cancer, and an older man with a brain tumor. All of whom are dying.
A lot of things about the movie struck me.
One was the physician who said that much of our society’s fear of death comes from the time when death was still painful for most. Death was painful, he said, only two generations ago, but now pain and other problems (seizures, vomiting, etc.) can be managed medically, so that the dying one isn’t in pain or extreme discomfort.
And while this kind of pharmaceutical, medicinal peace isn’t available to all in every situation, it is to most. Most can have peace. I never thought of it that way before. Even those I know who died of painful cancers rode a silent avalanche of drugs into death. It sounds horrible, but not having that option seems even more horrifying.
And after watching this unflinching video, one that even records the moment of one person’s death, I feel better, not worse, about dying.
Something else I remember is a moment from the life of the woman dying of cancer. Her pastor, from a black, presumably Baptist church, tells the interviewers that he is a cancer survivor, and he survived because he believed God could heal him. He plainly states that prayer with doubt does not work, and that prayer with conviction will bring cure.
The idea that god is a sort of all-powerful personal valet who rewards the faithful and ignores the rest sickens me. I see it as a disease of the emotionally and spiritually immature. And it seems to be rampant in this culture.
Shortly after this the sick woman gets cancer in her lymph nodes. After an amazing recovery, she sinks back deeper into illness, too much illness to fight.
The next prayer leader is seen when she is lying in bed, too sick to rise on her own. It’s not the pastor anymore. It’s a young man with a strong and unwavering voice who prays very differently. He asks for healing, but conditions his requests with “if it is your will”: “If it is your will, we ask for healing, Lord.”
When he asks that if the woman must die she be taken smoothly and without pain, the woman puts her head against the one supporting her and begins to cry softly.
While watching I thought that she was crying with fear at having her own imminent death and the possibility of pain presented to her in prayer. But now I wonder if she wasn’t just relieved to have someone accept her approaching death, and pray with acceptance, and fill the room with the acceptance which is part of peace.
Or if there was some other reason I will never know.