“Why would God do this to me?” My elderly hospice patient greeted me with this question as I walked into her sunny room one spring afternoon. She repeated these same words to me several times during each of my weekly visits. I do not think she expected an answer from me, because she always continued on with her reasoning: “I worked for the church my entire life, and this is what I get? Everything hurts. I am all alone. I cannot believe that God would repay me in this way.” I gently stroked her wrinkled hand and tried to comfort her; “I am so sorry you are hurting and alone. I wish you did not have to experience this.”
I never addressed her original question, although I must have heard it at least one hundred times during the months I spent visiting her. Years ago, I had made a pact with myself not to engage in similar queries about my own experience. During the initial months of my illness, a dear friend asked me, “Why would this be happening to you?” Stunned by her question, I replied the only way that made sense to me, “Why not me?” Seventeen years later, this is still my reply.
Thankfully, my mind has some protection coverage around this area of inquiry. Whenever I try to connect my heart condition to any aspect of myself in a causal way, my mind grows fuzzy. I simply cannot draw conclusions about the circumstances in which I find myself that relate to my worthiness. And I am boundlessly grateful for this, because I have witnessed so many individuals suffering as they venture down pathways of reasoning similar to my patient’s.
Countless people may find this elderly woman’s question naïve or old-fashioned, themselves not having a conception of a higher power that chooses our fates based on how well we have served or how many sins we have committed. “Why would God do this to me?” is likely a phrase they have never considered, much less uttered aloud.
Nevertheless, they may be venturing down the same path of reasoning as my patient is. There are more sophisticated ways to ask the same question; there are different words and newer constructs that have their basis in the same sort of mindset.
Recently, I gathered with a group of spiritual practitioners in order to collectively explore death and dying. And what I found was that people flocked to hear my death stories that endorsed our cultural dream of an easy, peaceful death and those that reified what they believed about the afterlife being a place of absolute beauty and love. And I when I gently added, “I have encountered some hellish experiences as well,” people literally turned and walked away from me. One person’s reply to this statement was instructive; he said, “Well, I think you were just in a lower level of consciousness during those challenging times. If you kept your vibration high, you wouldn’t experience that.”
I was taken aback, not because the sentiments he expressed were new to me, but because I had come to this event in the hopes of connecting with others who were expansive thinkers, who were willing to hold the ambiguities of life – and of death. I was surprised to find that the general assumptions about dying were not dissimilar to those my patient held.
Although the language he used was very contemporary and he believed himself to be firmly rooted in the most modern thinking, this man actually was repeating sentiments he would likely be shocked to find associated with himself. Indeed, the message he conveyed had more in common with medieval philosophies weaving together good behavior with the reward of good death than it does with any reality I have experienced through dying and supporting others to die. Equating the experiences we encounter as we die with our behavior – be it acts of sin or levels of consciousness – is harmful, painful, and in the end absolutely incorrect. In that brief moment, this man highlighted for me one of the most harmful aspects of dying today, and it indicates to me that there is a lot of work we can do to disengage death and dying from any type of reward system altogether.
This connection of dying experiences with past behavior occurs in various ways. When we explain away someone’s lung cancer with, “But he was a smoker, of course,” or relate someone’s heart disease to her particular diet, we engage in the same type of behavior. There absolutely exist important reasons for acknowledging links between specific terminal illnesses and behavioral patterns; this can help us live healthier lives. But living healthy lives is not a talisman against prolonged, painful illness at the end of those lives. Each of us has heard of someone diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer without ever having taken a puff on a cigarette. Likewise, we all know a person whose heart (or other condition) cannot be related to diet or any lifestyle choices (I am one of those persons).
What concerns me about our culture’s frequent overindulgence in lines of reasoning that attach behaviors with deaths of ease or with deaths of hardship is what lies beneath these types of reasoning.
What lies beneath the preacher’s insistence at a memorial, “The most peaceful deaths I have witnessed have been those of Christians. In fact, I can say that no non-Christian has ever had an easy time dying in my experience”?
What inspires the young spiritual practitioner who assures me, “I have done so much work on myself – so much that I am not afraid to die at all. I am certain I will know when it is time for me to die. I will just hike up into the mountains and lie down. I will wait for a mountain lion or bear to come kill me. It will be beautiful”?
These are lies. They are fairytales.
And like all fairytales they have seeds of fear woven throughout. The fear that underlies these stories is twofold: the dread of a painful, undignified death and the anxiety that a life has been lived incorrectly somehow.
In discussions of end-of-life issues, there is often much use of the terms “good deaths” and “dying well”. Such terms unite these fantasy versions of the dying process with “right” behavior throughout life. They create a construct in which people earn either their peaceful deaths or their struggles. And if we change the language around a bit, all we find is sentiments that resemble what many of us may consider antiquated views of a reward and punishment system at death.
These assessments ultimately make of death a meritocracy. Perhaps it should not be surprising to find that in a culture when our actions are rewarded or punished from the earliest age there lies a belief system that also includes rewards and punishments for our actions that extend all the way to our dying days. A culture that gifts a young girl an ice cream cone as a reward for her good grade on a test is one that will gift that same girl with an easy dying experience many decades later. If we equate young Johnny’s challenging childhood with his lack of some inherent piece of goodness as a person, we will do the same for older, dying Johnny and his challenging death.
Over the past seventeen years, I have had three different journeys with death, three times when my heart failure became so acute that my other organs began to fail as well, three times when I was told to prepare myself for death. Throughout those many months of dying, I have encountered experiences both easy and challenging; I have been in pain and have been comfortable; I have been at peace and in fear. And none of those experiences was caused by or could be related to any of my behaviors, past or present. My first death walk was filled with a lot of ease and peace, while my second one brought great deals of anguish and anxiety to me. These events occurred only eighteen months apart; my character had not drastically changed, nor had I suddenly begun to engage in behaviors that would warrant me a challenging death in this system of meritocracy.
However, in a culture that ingrains in us that we must work hard, have tremendous talents and skills, and behave well in order to succeed, to earn our success (whatever vision of success that may be), we may find it challenging to disengage from these meritocratic views of dying. So perhaps it can be made more clear when we turn to animals’ deaths.
My family recently experienced the deaths of two of our beloved guinea pigs over the course of several months. The first little guy, Patches, had what appeared to be a very painful dying process. He had seizures and strokes over the course of several days; and then one morning his body contracted into a tight ball of tension as he breathed his last breath.
In contrast, his brother Pumpkin’s death seemed much more ease-filled. I felt his heart rate increase for a few days and noticed that he walked a bit more slowly than usual. Then one day, he walked to the door of his cage, almost asking to be let out like a dog. He sat next to me on the couch, under layers of quilts as I lay down for a nap next to him. As I dozed, I dreamt of a dying guinea pig. And later that evening, our daughter found him dead, lying on his side looking peaceful.
These two different deaths are instructive on many levels. Neither guinea pig had “earned” his experience. There was no reward in the more gentle death and no punishment in the challenging one. And although Patches seemed to be in a great deal of pain, he did not seem to suffer any more than his brother did; he did not struggle against his pain, he was not in any emotional turmoil about it, he merely experienced this. Humans are rarely able to do this – to experience pain or discomfort without suffering. We often add layers and layers of suffering to the pain we encounter, and much of that is created through this habit we have of connecting our experience to our behavior, our value, our worth. When we believe that hurting bodies are some sort of penance for specific actions, the self-judgment, ridicule, and castigation can make our situation nearly unbearable.
But here’s what is absolutely true: dying has painful parts. Dying has parts that are undignified. And experiencing these things does not make us bad or lacking in talent. It makes us human.
In fact, this convention our culture has of associating specific death experiences with an individual’s merit has nothing to teach us about dying itself – and much to teach us about our culture.
From our earliest years, most of us are taught that good or right actions warrant prizes of some sort – praise from parents, good grades at school, attention from peers. Likewise, bad or wrong actions result in punishment of some sort, be it ridicule from parents, bad grades at school, ostracism from peers. After living a lifetime within this system of meritocracy, it is reasonable that we would approach our dying with the same construct.
However, to do so is incredibly harmful and damaging to our psyches, our bodies, our spirits. During a time when we may benefit most from being kind and gentle to ourselves, many of us have no idea how to extricate ourselves from this merit-based system of belief.
My teacher, the Franciscan friar and priest Richard Rohr, notes that:
The mentality that divides the world into “deserving and undeserving” has not yet experienced the absolute gratuity of grace or the undeserved character of mercy. . . . Such people will remain inside the prison of “meritocracy,” where all has to be deserved. (to learn more about Richard Rohr’s work, visit the Center for Action and Contemplation)
This prison of meritocracy exists in much of our society’s relating of death experiences to specific behaviors. And it allows no room for the grace that permeates death and dying, a grace we will see everywhere if we know how to look for it.