Death and Dying as a Theological Dialogue

January 5th, 2011

The metaphor of valley and shadow is filled with tables and oil, goodness and mercy, food, drink and company.

Dialogue does not only occur with words. The exchange of meaning can happen through Presence—gestures, silent companionship, or touch. What are the theological meanings attached to such communications? Presence means something theologically: You are not alone. You have not been abandoned. You are not isolated. You have company through this experience.

Even in the midst of one of the most difficult challenges of human existence, the death of a child, we are embodying a theological perspective. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor 4:8-9). Our Presence intends to say community, grace and hope as we participate in a universally shared human experience, dying and death. We await the particular cries and other responses of the dying and grieving ones.

Presence is keeping company with another, as we do in raising children or sharing in family, friendship, vocational relationships. This time it is sharing in the lifelong and inexorable movement toward the processes and acts of dying and death. The timing of these processes may be premature (he died so young); or expected (she lived a good life); filled with suffering, lament and questioning (WHY?); marked by a calm awaiting, or consent (I—we—are ready).

The circumstances may be intrusive: an act of violence by persons or nature; an accident on the road or in what was considered a “safe space"; an apparently contained disease leaping out of control or a sudden impairment in a vital organ. The individual may be in the company of others who have been caught up in terrorism or tsunami, plane crash or epidemic.

Whatever the particular circumstances, Presence embodies the nature of God as loving, participatory and faithful, even hopeful and expectant. The metaphor of valley and shadow is filled with tables and oil, goodness and mercy, food, drink and company. As an embodiment of God, the Presence is not cloying, hovering, or awash in the feeling of the one who accompanies. The Presence says: I will absorb your pain and horror. I will not turn from your suffering. I will not mute your laments. I will go gentle with you and await in peace and silence. I will attend this human process as you enter into it and, in a variety of ways, quietly shout of God's Presence.

Dialogue Partners

Walter Brueggemann has suggested that the central question of pastoral care is not “how are you?” but “with whom do you risk dialogue about the important issues of being human?” Indeed there are many partners. The caregiver may be the Stephens minister, the pastor, the parish nurse, a member of the hospice team, a faithful family member, a longtime friend. Few words may be used, and even they may not “make everything right,” answer the “whys,” justify God, or interpret final meaning. Nevertheless, the dying and their loved ones are being received into the community that experiences death. The partners in various ways guide them through the chaos and the loss of the familiar, attend them in living through losses that can neither be explained or replaced, listen through questions that cannot be resolved.

Theologically, the entire church community is involved. Its practices have been developed and tested over time: prayers are said and there are many acts of ordinary kindness such as gifts of food and offers of transportation, friendly visits, and memorials. Care teams may be formed to help the mourners and there may be structures of remembrance so that the survivors are not forgotten after the funeral. Such practices are theological expressions.

The rituals of the church offer dialogue established over centuries of Christian interpretation and response to the fact of death and dying. Death rituals are intended to weave death into the fabric of human living, to provide a Story in which even death has a place. Death needs to be spoken of from the pulpit and in adult and nursery education, remembering that the church itself is born out of the death of its Savior.

There are many partners, but God remains the central dialogue partner. Each participant in death carries some narrative about death and God that may frighten (going to hell) or sustain (after awhile, you'll know all about it). The narrative may make meaning (it is my time) or invite guilt (if only …). It may offer support (nothing in all creation) or criticize a style of mourning (don't be mad at God!) Listening for these cultural and theological meanings is the task for the intentional Christian “attendant,” affirming that the dying one is a full partner in these dialogues of death and dying.

Diversities in Dialogue

As there are many ways of dying, there are many ways of understanding death: as natural process or the result of sin(s); as going to a better place, an Eternity anticipated; avoidable if health issues are properly handled or perhaps the life span may be vastly lengthened. Death may be viewed in “battle” terminology with dying representing “lost battle.” Those who are present with the dying, and then the mourners, will not expect the dying or their families to die or grieve in some “right way,” perhaps as the attendant would (or has learned from the social sciences!)

Serious theological conversation is going on when there are discussions about open or closed caskets, removal of feeding tubes, naming or baptism of a stillborn person. Families are struggling to “do right,” and often, in the midst of the chattering and crying, death's attendants can help clarify decisions and offer meaning when silences harden. Sometimes death is viewed as pointless and without explanation; perhaps God does not need a defender or death an explanation. But listening, openness to dialogue, benevolent companioning, appreciation for diversity, help in structuring time, and allowing for the passage of time are all vital.

It may help to understand that the processes of death and dying are not unlike the everyday processes of attending to and dialoguing about nursery care, the time for the new contemporary service, sex education for adolescents, pot lucks, and funding for social justice programs. In the midst of all human existence, pastoral caregivers find moments for healing and sustaining, guiding and reconciling, nurturing and educating, advocating for and liberating from, and modeling death as a normal event, offering benevolent companioning as embodying God's presence and faithful promises. Death's participants learn that life and death, joy and grief, hope and despair belong in the same theological sentence and understanding of God.

Death and Public Discourse

It is only a step from individual and congregational caring practices to the many issues of death and dying in public discourse. The Terri Shiavo situation illustrates this, as the many caregivers responded in various ways, and the debates and actions (including those of burial) became divisive. Pastoral care always has a public face: pondering the role of the church and state when parents seek to withhold radiation treatments from a dying child; ultimate decisions about blood transfusions; abortion issues, as well as concerns about equal access to health and hospice care. Certainly Nancy Reagan's public support of stem cell research is connected to her own death and dying experiences with her beloved husband.

At some point, Presence may yield to Word (which has, of course, been grounding the understanding of Presence!) A participant may want to know what YOU think. You will seek prayer and scriptural resources to use at the bedside, in conversation with family members. A survivor may want to talk about what happened, and why. An early problem in pastoral care was the over-eagerness for the care-giver to speak—to interpret—to pronounce—to state the theological or scientific point of view as to how the person(s) should be feeling. We may have moved so far from that point, that we now assume that Presence is enough. It is time to look once again to the Words of death and dying, the faithfulnesses and understanding of God that they seek to communicate, the meanings that they struggle to express. Presence can be formulated in words: God will go the distance with you. God never gives up—and can receive all your rage and lament. You are not abandoned … you are not alone … you are not isolated.

There are also affirmations in religious understandings of time. There is a time for this and a time for that … for God's creation is multivalent and filled with possibilities. Presence keeps alive the possibility of the day when the mourner can experience that death does not put a period to living. Life does go on—all of history and theology witnesses to that—and the griever will come to know that there are new or renewed beginnings after even the most dreadful endings. Eventually there may be conversation about evil and suffering, and how they differ, but how neither puts out the light and goodness of God. For the faithful, there is always more. At this moment it may be tenuous, perhaps only glimpsed in the eyes of the pastor or hospice worker, but as suffering is lived through, the other vitalities of creation appear anew. Connections with the loved one who has died gradually become memories, irreplaceable gifts. In such ways, the facts and experiences of death and dying become woven into the fabric of life, not kept separate from it.

After a death, even of Jesus, the community is still here. This does not mean that wounds will heal, for some do not; nor will they vanish through some practice of grief counseling. What does happen is that death takes its rightful place in the totality of the human pilgrimage, where the liturgies and resources of generations enfold the present sufferers and await with them for God's promises to be sensed (named) anew. Theologically, one learns that no self-mastery can conquer or keep one immune from death's processes. Each of us will die, and if we love, we will be hurt/wounded/devastated by death. There is no way that reason can control or fully incorporate our feelings. But, theologically, we are not about self mastery or reason. Even as reluctant participants, we participate fully in all of life's processes and some of us may even come to experience death as friend.

It is within that stance that we understand and are Present. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” For nothing in all Creation shall keep us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.


Peggy Way is retired professor of pastoral care at Eden Theological Seminary in Saint Louis, is author of Created by God. This article originally appeared in Circuit Rider magazine.

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