Friday, August 7, 2009

more on mortality

Pastor Jeri sent me the following email:

Glad to know you and your mother have talked about death. It's often a difficult conversation, but a most important one to have. Your mother and I have discussed her condition and death at least twice. Each time she has assured me that she is not afraid - what is there to be afraid of? After all, there is nothing, absolutely nothing that separates us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. She knows this and it brings her a sense of comfort and hope for tomorrow.

Thanks, Jeri, for talking with Mom not merely about death, but about her death. Being frank about what's happening is the best strategy; awareness is better than lack of awareness. My mother had an aunt in Korea who, when we re-visited her in 1989 (after our previous trip in 1986), was rife with cancer-- some sort of stomach cancer, I think, which had metastasized everywhere. No one in her immediate family had had the spine to tell her what was wrong with her, so she never even knew she had cancer. While awareness of a situation can bring pain and anxiety along with it, I don't think the prospect of such suffering is enough to justify withholding crucial information about someone else's fate.

In Mom's case, she benefits, bizarrely enough, from blunted affect resulting from the trauma her brain has already experienced. I give Mom credit for being brave in the face of death, but I also know that, were her brain whole, she wouldn't be nearly so stoic about the prospect of her own demise. She would, instead, be upset and depressed, at least initially. Ultimately, she'd square her shoulders and face her fate, but such acceptance would come only at the end of a rocky road, emotionally speaking.

We saw a hint of this non-acceptance a while back, when I first talked seriously with Mom about death two weeks after her first operation, and only a short time before her major MRSA infection began. "If I die, I die," she said at the time (May 5, the day after her birthday), sounding more resigned to than accepting of her fate. She had more of her mental faculties back then, and because very little time had passed since April 16, the shock of her cancer was still fresh. Now, though, Mom seems generally calmer and more serene, perhaps because of her brain damage, but also perhaps because she's had time to consider her situation.

There will be more such discussions with Mom, especially now, while she's lucid and capable of some degree of future-oriented thinking. There's still a lot to talk about, many things to settle. If we learned anything from the sudden death of my great aunt (on my father's side) in the 1990s, it's that people shouldn't wait before setting their affairs in order. Going through life in denial of the inevitable is a stupid way to live (I'm saying this as much to myself as I am to you, Dear Reader). Just as good parents work for years to help usher their children into adulthood, so we all should take pains to prepare our loved ones for our own passing. It's not morbid to talk frankly about death; death is, like it or not, the One Sure Thing about creaturely existence. Instead of being a source of fear, that thought should be a source of comfort. See the world aright, and it will be.



John from Daejeon said...


I've been wanting to comment for quite some time, but like most people, these types of situations leave us wondering just what we should say. You would think that with the large Christian background of so many in this world that we would be better prepared for our own last last days and those of our loved ones as Christianity focuses so much on the death and resurrection of its founder. Yet, it seems to be a bit of a taboo subject due to the uncertainty of it with our brain's scientific notion of what death truly means versus that of all those numerous religions out there that we realize can't all be right.

I think I've also been reluctant to drop a “thinking of you line” when it brings up my father's passing to cancer and his decision to do absolutely nothing to prepare for the outcome and the decisions I made during that trying time (both good and bad). While he left the aftermath entirely up to me to deal with because he refused to talk about it or seek treatment after the initial operation, it did lead me to put my house in order years ago. I just wish that I could convince my mother and my siblings to do the same thing, but besides being a scary subject (out of sight, out of mind, I guess), it is also a very expensive one. The cost of just a basic cremation or burial in a simple casket costs these days really boggles my mind. Sadly, it's a final decision that is usually never made in time, so it's usually left up to grieving children or spouse to try and do the right thing while being second-guessed by distant relatives and fair-weather friends who suddenly show up out of thin air.

I applaud your talking so openly about your situation and also of spreading vital information that others can use in their times of need. I am hoping that there are more good days ahead for your family, and that more of us take some time out of our busy lives to spend a little bit of it with those close to us while we can.

Take care,


Kevin Kim said...

Thanks for a very insightful comment, John (heck, your comments are always insightful).

Religion is in large measure a response to the prospect of death. Religion is at its worst when it focuses on the afterlife-- an ontological state about which we really know nothing (hence the intensity with which many people cleave to their beliefs about it: the less we know, the more fervent we are). Too much focus on an uncertain afterlife can breed complacency, and also deflates the meaningfulness of this moment, because the believer will be tempted to view this moment in the context of something larger. The afterlife is like the McDonald's down the road: it's a cheap distraction from the scenery we're driving past.

Religion is at its best, however, when it helps us focus on the here and now, allowing us-- when it comes to matters of mortality-- to discern what needs to be done to prepare our loved ones for our eventual departure. When the focus is on the present, the world suddenly becomes a precious, fragile thing, and we can see more clearly that our loved ones deserve better than for us to leave them hanging.

I'm very, very sorry to read about your father's death from cancer. I'm glad to know to that you've made efforts to put your own affairs in order. I really need to do the same.