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Pilgrimage – Last Journeys

Date: 24/11/2019/Speaker: Rev Miak Siew

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Ecclesiastes 3:1-2, 20
Ecclesiastes 3 begins – For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time
to be born, and a time to die…

…All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.

Like the worship song Seasons we sang earlier – “Like the frost on a rose, Winter comes for us all.”

Last week Pauline talked about living well – leaving a legacy
behind. Today I will talk about leaving well.

Back in 1400s, there were two Latin texts from the Roman Catholic Church titled Ars Moriendi – The Art of Dying that offer advice on how to die well according to Christian values during the late Middle Ages.

We know a lot more than the people did more almost 600 years ago, but we still face the same reality – that one day, we will face death.

For many of us here, death is something that is not at the top of our minds. We are still young, healthy, and we seem to be in control of our lives. The problem is, many of us don’t think a lot about death, much less talk about it. And when we think about death, it may not be in ways that are helpful in dying well.

I hope what I share today would be helpful for all of us – whether it is confronting our mortality, or to walk with someone in the last portion of their journey in this life.

Two questions we want to ask today:

How do we leave well?

How do we help our loved ones leave well?

I have the privilege of spending time with people during the last days of their lives. There were some who were at peace, and there were some who were full of anxiety. There were some who didn’t have much time after they found out about their medical condition, and some who had a few more years. And then there were some who survived.

Everyone’s experience, like everyone’s journey is different. But
we can still learn from each other’s journeys. This will help us walk with and support folks when they reach the end of their journeys and help us too when our time comes.

In the past two years, I have walked with 2 friends at the last
stage of their cancer. Nick passed away last December, and Eu Meng this October. Both had very different journeys. Nick passed away less than a year after his cancer diagnosis. Eu Meng’s cancer recurred more than 3 years ago.

How did they come to terms and become at peace given the
circumstances? Will we be able to “with every breath that I am able sing of the goodness of God?”

The truth is it wasn’t a straight line – more like an emotional
roller coaster of fear, anger, calmness, sadness, hope, grief, weariness, and despair. Like what Eu Meng said to me once, “There are good days and bad days.”

Even Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, prayed: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”
(Matthew: 26: 39)

Yes, we would feel fear and anxiety – and coming to terms with
death is about letting go, surrendering and trusting God.

Jesus prays a second time in the garden, “My Father, if this
cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”

Coming to terms with the fact that we are dying is difficult – One of the important things to do is to reach out, ask for and accept help.

There are many resources developed in recent years – and certainly vast improvements from Ars Moriendi from the 1400s. The University of St Mary in UK developed and continues to add to The Art of Dying Well (www.artofdyingwell.org).

Locally, the Lien Foundation worked on the project Life Before
Death. There are many sub-projects – including Both Sides Now, a local community project done by Arts Wok, founded by the first pastor of FCC, Ngiam Su-Lin. You can find some information at www.lifebeforedeath.com and www.lienfoundation.org.

There is also a e-magazine at http://www.lienfoundation.org/sites/default/files/leaving_well.pdf

From the Life Before Death – “Death. Though it happens to us all, many of us avoid speaking of it even if it is imminent. But talking about death won’t kill us. In fact we’ve found talking openly about death, about our feelings, can bring the sort of comfort, solace and indeed personal growth that even doctors and medicine cannot.”

“Talking about death, imminent or – hopefully – distant, can bring us closer in life. And it’s only by talking with our loved ones that we can share how we feel about things like hospice care, artificial respiration, and organ donation for instance.”

Talking about death will open up conversations that may mend,
heal, and have profound impact on people we love.

There is another thing that we would feel – regret. Regret about things we have done, and things we have not yet done. Regret about broken relationships.

One way to avoid regret is to live by being fully present, making amends when we have done something wrong and restoring relationships, and doing what is really important to us when we could.

Eu Meng continued to travel to pursue his favourite hobby –
birdwatching. He did so even when it was not easy for him physically, and when he was no longer able to, he accepted it. He lived life to the fullest.

Eu Meng was also clear about what he can and cannot do. He had limited energy and he made a choice not to receive visitors so what little energy he had, he spent it with the people close to him. On his birthday this year, I asked if I could drop by – his reply was “Thank you for your well wishes.”

One of the gifts we can leave for our loved ones is settling our
affairs so that they do not have to go through even more stress while they are grieving.

These are some suggestions –

1. Do up a will

2. Set up an Advance Medical Directive

3. Set up what happens to your social media accounts. Google has settings to delete your account or delegate control to someone else after 6 months of no log-in activity.

4. Leave instructions about your wake / funeral. We have set up a simple one at http://bit.ly/fcclastwishes to help you leave instructions with us.

For me, I want to go in an ecoffin – a cardboard
coffin that is more environmentally friendly. I found out about this at a funeral I helped conduct. When I was there to receive the casket with the family, it was a sad brown cardboard box. But when I arrived the next evening to conduct the service, it blossomed into a garden with colourful stickers and post-it notes. For the first time, I saw people – even children – hanging around the coffin, reading the post-it notes. There, I didn’t just see death, but also resurrection.

5. A Living Funeral. Some people opt to have a living funeral to meet people before they die.
I have not been to one, much less conducted one, but if there is any church who would do this, that would be us.

For many us, we have not started to think about death. More
likely, we would be facing the reality of losing loved ones in our lives. How do we help the people around us leave well?

What not to say to someone with terminal illness

1. Tell stories of those who’ve had a similar illness and died

2. Tell them about miracle cures and say they must try them

3. Tell them that God will heal them – we are not God, and we don’t know God’s will

4. Accuse them of giving up. We need to discern where they are at. If they are at a place where they have come to terms with dying, even telling them to keep on trying isn’t helpful.

What to say to someone with terminal illness

1. “Do you want to talk about this, or do you want
to talk about something else?” They may say “I don’t have much time left.” Asking them if they want to talk about it could be an entry point to talking about death and going deeper.

2. “What do you now need most from me?”

3. Deal with regrets by saying, “Please forgive me.”

4. Free yourself of hard feelings by saying, “I forgive you.”

5. Appreciate the person by saying, “Thank you.”

6. “I love you” – Say it freely; say it often.

7. Don’t wait until the last minute to say, “Goodbye” – Say what needs to be said.

When I left for seminary in 2008, there was one burden on my heart. My grandmother was in poor health. My flight was early in the morning around 6.30am and I had to leave at 4am. My grandmother stood at the door to her room. It was a rushed goodbye. If she died then, I would have lived with regrets about not saying a proper goodbye. Her dementia deteriorated when I returned. But a day or two before I left for the US the following year, she had a rare moment of lucidity. As I was sitting by her bedside, she asked, “You are leaving soon?” She told me to take care of myself, and work hard. She won’t see me again. I replied that I would be returning in December.
She said in a firm, grandmotherly way, “I won’t be around.” I broke into tears in her arms. It was a gift she gave me – a good goodbye.

I hope that we all live as though our goodbyes are our last, so we don’t live in regret of things not said.

Another lesson I learned was when many friends from the outdoor and sports group who knew Nick wanted to visit him in hospital. A wise friend said to all of us –

“I am not close to Nick. We worked on a project many years ago.

Definitely not in his circle of close friends. But I do remember
him for literally welcoming me to my first Adlus event, a trip to Berkelah waterfalls. A nice guy.

When I first heard about his liver cancer months ago, I wished him well for his new therapy that he was trying out.

When I heard he was dying last week, I didn’t see the point in
visiting. Of visiting someone I hadn’t really kept in contact with for years. I sent him a farewell message, for which he thanked me.

Friends will come together and drift apart. That’s natural. No
need to apologise for not having kept in contact. And certainly no reason for “one last look”.

Nick and his family have made a request for privacy. So let’s
respect that. By all means send your goodbyes and photos, but don’t expect a response. And now is not the time to send Get Well Soon & Fight On messages.

Our friend is dying. Accept it.

The best you can do in this situation is call up a friend whom you haven’t spoken to for a long time and make a dinner date.”

I had to remember that when Eu Meng gently said no to me when I wanted to visit. We have had all the conversations we needed over the last 2 years.

During my time as a chaplain intern in California, I was asked by the nurse to speak to a patient who was getting discharged to home hospice. She was an elderly grandmother. I went to see her, and she was surrounded by her children and her grandchildren. It was odd, given that it was a weekday she wasn’t dying immediately, just getting discharged to go home. Everyone was busy in the room – busy, I guess, so that they can avoid talking about what was really going on.

I told the family that the administrative processing would take a
little while more, and as it was close to lunch, suggested that they go grab something to eat while I sat with her.

It was a powerful conversation – especially the things that were
not said.

I asked how she was doing. “I am doing quite well,” she replied. She looked out the window, and she stared into space for quite a long while. She was remembering and reflecting. Then she turned to me and said “I lived a long life and I am grateful. I am surrounded by loved ones. I was married for 50 years.
Not all those years were great – but most of them were good.” And then she looked out the window again. Then she turned and said to me, “I am ready to go home.”

When she said she was ready to go home, we both knew she wasn’t just talking about getting discharged and going home. She was also saying she was ready to die.

So I wonder – what will help us reach that kind of space to be at peace with dying? How can we help people around us be at peace with dying and say “I am ready to go home?”

It will be different for all of us. We will have different things we will be wrestling with. As a community, as we love and care for each other, may we walk with each other on the last journeys so that we can sing of God’s goodness in the last days of our
lives.