When death comes at Christmas

I have a friend who is dying.  It always seems to be at the holidays when life — both the birth and the dying — hangs in the balance.  It might be also in those precious, slow-motion moments, when time almost stands still, that we feel a little closer to God. Maybe it’s just at the crossroads of darkness and light that we pay closer attention.  So here I am again, saying good-bye.  I’m not a fan of these good-byes, especially not at Christmas. Deck the halls.  Fa la la.

I visited when John’s hospice nurse had arrived for a visit. I stayed as she examined him and then spoke to the family about what was going on and what to expect. This is the fourth time I’ve had contact with hospice at the end-of-life and I’m always so taken with how gently and with such grace and compassion they offer their support and guidance. I’ve watched them calm fears, facilitate honest discussion, and make room for grief and love. I’m in awe of how they are able to carry all of it. As I said to the nurse, they are certainly angels walking among us. I doubt I could do it. 

Then, as part of a tangent conversation not related to John, she used the term “failure to thrive” and my heart leaped. I suddenly realized that hospice nurses and midwives/doulas basically perform the same job. Both assist in difficult passages, calm fears and make room for all the emotions. And because life and death are on their own other-worldly timetables, hospice nurses and midwives or doulas are completely present whenever we need them. They are like bookends to the two most mysterious moments of our lives.

Later, after I’d brought food (I can always do the food thing), after I’d hugged and been hugged . . . held hands and shed some tears . . . and miraculously shared funny stories and laughed full belly laughs, I faced a long drive home.  It’s Christmas so I put on my Christmas playlist and sang along for miles.  I’m not sure which song it was — or where along the drive it happened, but I broke.  It was all my grieving throughout all my years that came to the surface.  All I could do was let it be.

Let it be.  Let it ALL be.  Now, as my thoughts keep returning to that living room, decorated with a Christmas tree and an oxygen tank — sparkly ornaments and a sterile hospital bed — and family gathered, I realized the heartbreaking honesty of the afternoon.

The holidays are filled with such enormous expectations, the striving for perfection (the perfectly decorated house, the perfectly baked cookies, the perfectly chosen presents), and the quiet, almost hidden, disappointments.  (As an aside, watch this week’s Saturday Night Live skit “Home for the Holidays” with Eddie Murphy which puts all of the pretense into sharp focus.)

Back to my friend’s living room.  There was no pretense.  No superficial holiday cheer.  But it was holy.  Everything about it was real.  Honest.  Quiet and reverent.  Love-filled.  John and his family are exactly where they are supposed to be, doing the hardest things a life will ask us to do.  They are listening with attentive hearts.  With the help of hospice, they are saying their good-byes.  I was blessed to be so welcomed into this sacred space.

My thoughts are still swirling from my visit, but I hope that somewhere the heavens celebrate the release of a soul from this earth the way we celebrate the birth of a child as they enter it. Christmas seems to be so full of both grief and joy — and now, again and again, I am faced with the prospect of another life passing at this time of year. I am so full of unanswerable questions and so grateful to have my faith to help guide me. Meanwhile, I can’t get over how lucky we humans are to have people who choose hospice or midwifery as their vocation. Talk about heroes.

Even as I celebrate Christmas, I am aware of all the other faith traditions and their winter holidays, the way darkness is greeted by light.  No matter what you celebrate — or even if you don’t — I wish for you much light.  Not necessarily merry,  but honest and illuminated.


*The Nativity above belonged to my parents.  We used to set it up under the tree each Christmas, and as you can see from the poor baby Jesus’ missing arm, we played with the pieces as we told and retold the Christmas story.  I love this baby without an arm.  He reminds me each year that life is messy and heartbreaking, even as it is joyful and redeeming.


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