There is a belief out in the world that people who are dying are different. They look back and see their lives in the sunset and the perspective offers them fresh insight and changes them somehow. It looks really good in a movie and makes a touching story at a funeral.
The reality is both better and worse than that.
As a hospice nurse, I have seen many people die. I tried to understand what drove them in their last days. Many have died with a grave and firm dignity that I envy. Many have died desperately clawing at their lives. Many have died forgiving and being forgiven. Many have died more bitter than they were in life.
For years it perplexed me what they had in common. What does death do to all of us? What do the bitter man and the kind man have in common as they see their lives ending?
The answer, they became even more themselves.
Death really isn’t that transformational. The anxious woman is even more anxious. The caring lady is even more caring. The brave man exhibits previously unknown courage. The coward is even more afraid.
This really shouldn’t be surprising. Dying people are regular people under a great deal more stress. With the rust blasted away by the heat of the moment, the metal below is exposed. Death is, after all, the great equalizer. The rich die and the poor die. The happy and the sad die. The wise man and the fool are both going to die.
That is not to say that these people die the same. Far from it. In death, I want to be the couragious, faithful, and caring man. My hope is that I will be at peace with my own death and will be able to serve those who are going to suffer through my death. The moment I die, my suffering is truly over. I will look my God in the eyes and finally, after many years of waiting, go home. The wait will have been long, but worth it.
Why would anyone feel sorry for me? I get to go home.
Those left behind, on the other hand, will have experienced a profound loss. Doesn’t it make sense that I should make doubly sure that all debts are paid, all that needs to be said has been said, and that every support for those I love will have been attended to.
How do I become that person? The man who serves in death. Because in death I will be just that much more of what I already am, the answer is to work on the me of today. Am I a servant today? All the more so when I die. Am I kind and generous today? I will be that much more when I die.
Don’t treat today like it has nothing to do with your death. If you are unprepared for your death, those you love will suffer the most. Have the courage to face your death today so that when it comes tomorrow, you will be prepared.
We are all becoming more of what we are every day. Age accelerates this change and dying perfects it. Be very careful who you are becoming today. One day you will become that person. I hope you can look at that person in the mirror.
Or maybe I should say I hope you can look your God in the eye on that day?
The image of the Dying Gaul is courtesy of Anthony Majanlahti and is used with permission