The Good Death

It feels like dying.  Or I imagine this is what dying might feel like.  The impossibility of saying goodbye to people you have loved and for a long time.  The impossibility of anyone else really understanding what it’s like as they go about the work that we must do among the living – filling the gaps, carrying on.  It’s the closest time in my life that I have gotten a glimpse of understanding what it might be like to be the one propped in the chair with months to live, and calling friends and family to offer words of apology, thank you, love and goodbye.  How many such chairs and bedsides have I sat beside with members and friends here as they sought to navigate that impossible gap to understand, to speech, when someone is dying and someone else carrying on.

I don’t mean all this to be morose because it’s not.  It’s also a time full of such grace, such opening of tears and love, a connection, a realness that perhaps I have never experienced exactly in this way before.  A time full of such deep learning about myself, my way of being in the world, my shadows and my gifts.  Such an amazing time.  And the only way to this time coming in the saying goodbye.  For me, sharing with the congregation a few weeks ago that December 30 would be my last Sunday here.  I’m not actually dying, no, or at least I don’t think so.  But grieving well, and in that preparing the possibility, making the way for the new life, the resurrection, there on the other side of every death and goodbye for me and for this congregation.

I wrote this poem years ago and I remember it now as I make space for the only space there really is in such days as this, for the conversations that matter most – for forgiveness, thank you, love and goodbye.  Making room for everything new.

The Good Death

Roger died last Monday night,
and though it sounds strange to say,
he died a good death –

That is not to say
that there has not been grief
and the ache of deep missing,
the empty rooms
and things packed away
that will never be shared again.

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No, it’s not mine to “judge”
what such a death means
for all who mourn,
but only to witness
the goodness I have seen:

For the past three months
since he sat propped in his hospital bed
and was told of his cancer
for which there was no cure,
Roger has been emptying his life in
forgiveness, thank you, love and good-bye.

Remarkable really, to witness his path,
as he summoned family and friends
for the conversations he needed to have,
the regret of words and deeds,
some long since forgotten,
but caught in his soul and needing release.

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Privilege, really to walk in and out
of the home of care his family had made –
his recliner by the window,
the feeder outside and
songbirds praising.

To witness amidst all the fluttering and duty,
patient care and restless nights,
that such a long death requires,
a stilling, deepening, quieting as well –
the sharing of memories, and holding of hands.

For some, there will be no time like this.
So many other deaths we have born and seen
full of other words than “good” –
but of “tragedy” and “heartbreak”,
“longing” and “incompletion”.

The tear and ache of deaths
that have been a wrenching out of life
with no time for kind words
and a parting kiss.

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No, we do not often get to choose –
but what if today we did  –
and chose here among the living,
with so many deaths before us –
that in all the filling of today
might be an emptying as well
of forgiveness, thank you, love and good-bye.

Roger told us months ago,
“I am ready to die,
and now, I am ready to live.”

Today, as I mourn and remember,
I pause, give thanks,
for a man who showed me the way to do both.

Peter Ilgenfritz
May 11, 2013

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8 thoughts on “The Good Death

    • Thanks Catherine, Yes, and let us choose today amidst everything else we will do – an emptying of forgiveness, love and thank you.

      Peter

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  1. Thank you Peter, a lovely piece that I will save as a thoughtful/heartful remembrance of this time of my Dad’s dying. You bore such good witness, and we are all so glad that you were able to be present with him the amount that you were… you meant the world to him!

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    • Thanks Dan for your note. It was such a privilege to walk in and out of the great place of care you had made for your Dad to do what he needed to do in these past months. Know I and all of us at church keep you, Kathy, Eric and your mom in the heart of our prayers in these days of grief, memory and living into this new season. On Sunday I preached and remembered in the sermon the ways that people like your Dad have so shown and shared love here at church- to people they have known, and people they don’t know at all. Your Dad’s spirit is deep in the walls here at UCUCC and we are blessed and deeply by him.

      Peter

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  2. Beautiful, Peter. I was privileged to be with my brother in law when he passed away in 1993 and he also had made peace with those he knew and with God, even though he had not been a visibly religious man prior to his death. This reminds me so much of that time. It also brings to life again what a gentle and special man Roger was.

    Anita von Oppenfeld

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    • Thank you Anita so much for writing and yes, for sharing the story of the grace you too have received in being with your brother in law in his time of death,

      Peter

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  3. Wow,Peter,what news! Exciting—and scary! I wish you all the best. and, thank you for the poem. For one who has done CPE,It has special meaning. May the Holy One walk with you.

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