Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Sunday, March 18, 2018

Dying and Grief

Book: Kate Bowler, Everything Happens For a Reason And Other Lies I’ve Loved

Most of the grief memoirs in bookstores are about dying. They’re not about grieving someone who has died. I don’t know why. Grieving goes on longer than dying, in most cases, yet both are epic journeys of fighting to survive. We gain insights and wisdom by reading both.

From the dying we learn how to live our lives with passion and intensity. From the grieving we learn how to survive our own grief and how to care for others who are suffering. From both we learn endurance, courage in the face of darkness, and how to live today as fully as we can.

Death isn’t a foregone conclusion for those who are deemed to be dying because there are remissions, cures, and misdiagnoses. Dying is not death. One is a possibility; the other is a finality. Their griefs are cousins. Books written by people who are dying typically end when those people die, although some include a short afterword by a trusted family member or friend, like Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air.

Kate Bowler’s book on dying was published last month. What makes it different is that she is dying, and she’s not. Bowler has stage 4 colon cancer that is being held at bay by experimental chemotherapy. She lives two months at a time, from one checkup to the next. If the checkup is good, she knows she has two more months. If it’s not, then she knows to start saying goodbye to her loved ones and wrapping up her life. That’s a hard way to live. As she notes, it’s difficult to plan very far into the future.

Bowler is also a professor of religious history who has studied the Christian prosperity gospel, and much of the book is taken up with this. It essentially says that if you are right with God, the proof will be that you are healthy, have money, a great family, and will prosper in your work. The flip side is that if you get sick, are poor, or stuck in a job you hate, then you are an unrepentant sinner and aren’t trusting God enough, even if you are one of the pastors of this gospel who was in his 40s when he died. It’s a cause-and-effect theodicy.

Many people have said to her that there is logic and meaning to her dying — either it’s to inspire others with her noble struggle, or it’s for her to discover some divine lesson that she needs to learn. I’m not going to get into the particulars of this, other than to say that I don’t think God cares about material possessions. I think God values community, compassion, and helping one another.

Besides her dying freeing her to be herself, including laughing in public at inappropriate times (There’s a lot of humor. She took up swearing for Lent.), I’m intrigued when she says she’s living in a time suspended between life and death. This is something that those who are grieving the death of a loved one also discover. Our focus shifts from planning for the future to living in this moment. We realize that we only have today to take care of those we love, because tomorrow one of us may not be here. A lot of us die before we are ready.

Dying is hard, at whatever age and for whatever reason, because you are facing the stark reality of your mortality. It’s also hard for others to watch you die. And it’s hard to see someone we care about struggling to come to grips with losing a loved one, and feeling powerless to take her pain and fear away.

This is where Kate’s book shines, for each of these situations. What is needed when someone is in the midst of inarticulate sorrow, she says, are not words but touch — the power of a hand holding ours, the warmth of a long hug, the comfort of someone’s presence as we share coffee. This makes a big difference because it means that we are not traveling though the wilderness of grief alone.