Mortality Awareness, Life and Pastoral Care: Reflections of a Roman Catholic Woman Priest
“Im not scared of dying, and I don’t really care, if its peace you find by dying, well, let the time be near…” Blood, Sweat and Tears
Somehow the thinly veiled depressive note of “not really caring” about death comes through the words of Blood, Sweat and Tears’ song. And while it is true as the song says that a baby is born and life goes on after our deaths the resignation to, but not acceptance of, death is a subtext. Most of us do “really care” and many of us do everything we can to avoid even thinking about dying and death.
A lot of our contemporary music and a host of hymns, old and new, capture feelings about death and dying. Dolly Parton sings “I Will Always Love you”, and Aretha Franklin sang “The Day is Past and Gone” a traditional African American hymn about “the night of death” drawing near, praying for safety in the night and drawing into the bosom of God’s love “when we from time remove”. Vince Gill sings “Go Rest High On that Mountain” where he anticipates his brother’s welcome into heaven. Martin Luther King Jr’s favorite hymn was “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”. In hardest times and “when my life is almost gone…And the day is past and gone, Take my hand, Precious Lord, lead me home.” And in the RC Church we sing “And I will raise you up on eagle’s wings…”and “I will raise you up, I will raise you up on the last day.” ( Yo los resucitare….en el dia final. “) This is the chorus of the hymn “I Am the Bread of Life” by Suzanne Toolan, RSM. ( Yo Soy el Pan de Vida). “I am the life, If you believe in me, even though you die, you shall live forever.” This is from the Gospel of John-John 6:35-40; and, John 11:25. Christ followers are filled with hope for life after death, for living on with Love, “in the bosom of God’s love”, as Aretha Franklin sang. Yet even the buffer of faith does not mean that facing death, one’s own or the death of a loved one is easy for anyone.
These songs speak to the grief process in losing a loved one, and to the feeling of death as ‘NIGHT” and then the hope of resurrection as Jesus was raised from the dead, and the sense of a peaceful and even happy afterlife. Yet, it is human to avoid thoughts of death and dying until we absolutely must face them in our lives.
A close friend recently told me that I seem to have an awareness of death that energizes my life. This was in the context of getting important things done while time permits. I am thankful to her for that observation as I have not thought about mortality awareness in quite a while. And, it is an important concept to deal with at various points in life. And it is important to deal with it from many perspectives, for me, most importantly, the perspective of faith.
When I was a Professor of Social Work for 27 years, ( from my thirties through my 50’s at three major Universities and one starting the MSW Program) I sometimes taught a Course called Human Behavior in the Social Environment, or Human Development. My primary teaching was in methods of helping people, in the one to one, small group, or organizational level, mostly individual and group clinical counselling. My specialty was group services and occasionally I liked to teach the Human Behavior Course, underpinning all interventions. I remember teaching that mortality awareness develops over the life span and happens differently for people depending on their life experiences, but that senior citizens are generally likely to develop this awareness most keenly. I was not a Senior as I taught this so I relied on life experiences that heightened my own mortality awareness, like the death of my beloved grandmother when I was twenty, which literally turned my life upside down; and my mother’s sudden death when I was forty-four that cut me to the core of my heart; and the early and difficult death of a dear friend who was like a brother to me in my fifties. Those deaths were deeply hard for me and heightened my awareness of death and the importance of relationships and life. Students would also share their death experiences sometimes happening in childhood and adolescence as well.
We talked about the life-giving potential of death awareness. We also talked about the anxiety and fear and repulsion that exists for some who prefer to forget and deny that awareness in order to cope. However, while I taught that the older years were the special province of such awareness, I was not yet there and could not deeply reflect on it. I can now. And I can attest that there is a very different feel to this awareness now. It is more deeply personal and more deeply challenging and energizing and, yes, more salient and imminent.
There are many recent articles online on Mortality Awareness, or Mortality Salience as some call it. For example, I like Why Being Aware of Your Mortality Can Be Good For You in The Apopka Voice, 7/5/20- https://www.theapopkavoice.com. It highlights the potential for motivation to overcome laziness and procrastination and to experience life the way you want it to be. It also highlights embracing spirituality as a major motivation as a way of accepting death awareness. Many articles talk about belief systems and faith as mitigating fear of death and enhancing acceptance of the reality. One article talks about the development of self-esteem as another key mitigating factor. In other words if we love ourselves we will take care of ourselves and place the emphasis on life, not death even while we are aware of it. For example one might see The Worm At the Core; On the Role of Death in Life (2015) by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszcynski on Mortality Salience and something called Terror Management Theory. They see cultural world views including belief systems, and self esteem as helping to return death-fearful persons to a state of equilibrium. A controlled study of 51 persons by Daniel Spitzenstatte and Tatjana Schnell, 2020, shows a decrease in the fear of dying in people who were taught interventions on how to deal with death awareness. In other words learning about death and dying can decrease fear. This includes talking about it and not primarily using denial. (https.//www.doi.org/10.1080/07481187.2020.808737 ). Another important book on this subject is Gratitude by Oliver Sacks 92015,Alfred A. Knopf). These are essays written in the last months of his life which explores his feelings about completing a life and coming to terms with his own death. In it he says, My predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and I have given something in return….(life) has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”.
Similarly those who work with and serve dying people, in pastoral care or in professional care of the dying and grieving, or in just being a friend to those facing such fears, are asked to confront their own mortality so they can serve well. An example is given of a medical doctor who avoids a patient who is dying because he feels that he can not do anything to prevent it. The doctor reflects his sadness that he did not at least sit with the patient and allow him to talk and express his feelings about his life and dying. This is important for those of us in ministry and other helping professions, and with those who have loved ones facing death, to note. We can “BE WITH” the severely ill and dying and not have to fix it. And this can happen best when we are comfortable with our own dying and aware of our own feelings about death.
My Reflections on Death and Dying
In my post-75 later Senior years I might say that I have become friendly with death. I can say that death is my friend, I know “she” is always around, yet, it is not the time to welcome her in. Far from being morbid or depressed or fearful of death, I know the time will come when I will welcome her, and my crossing over. I have experienced two cancers that were frightening. Thankfully, both cancers were “cured” by surgery without chemo or radiation following. I faced my mortality head on and quickly and was so thankful to live. I also faced the four cancers my beloved partner in life and ministry, Judy Beaumont, faced. Over almost fifteen years she beat three cancers, and the last one ALL (Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia) was not to be beaten. She fought, I fought with her. She went home to our loving God, in God’s mercy, on January 1, 2018. Three life threatening cancers were vanquished and she went on living life fully and joyfully, including in 2012 becoming ordained and serving as a Roman Catholic Woman Priest).
I am full of Life now, my health is excellent and my outlook, especially having found love again, such a miracle, is more positive than possibly it has ever been. I am happy. I am living every day-doing the ordinary, the sometimes easy, the sometimes difficult, and the sometimes extremely joyful things of living and of being the Pastor of our Good Shepherd Ministries. Aging is a series of challenges, mostly not too hard yet. Not being as fast as I was mentally, and physically is not easy for me. Pastoring is a joy and also a major responsibility. I love my family , my friends, my pets, my kitty rescue work which sometimes overwhelms, and most especially my beloved. Yet, I deeply know death is not our enemy. I know that God takes us home when it is (or perhaps will be) just too hard to remain here. Oh yes, when a loved one or even an animal I see in the natural world dies, I am stopped in my tracks. And here I want to stress that for those who have much loved pets, losing one is losing a family member and duly difficult, and in need of comfort. I pray for all of them, I pray that they are with Love, with our loving God, and I pray for those they left behind in loss and grief. I have been there so many times by now that I know deeply how they feel. I do not know what it is like to die, or to cross over , to make my transition into eternal life. But I have been with loved ones to that border. As both a person and a Pastor, many times I have shepherded some of my beloved people, and beloved pets too, as far as I could go. And many more times I have comforted the grieving, and lived my own grief. And, as I have described elsewhere, even as Paul saw Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:4-9) and it changed his life completely, I experienced the miracle of seeing the risen Judy Beaumont and it filled me with love and with the assurance of life eternal. It turned the “night of death” into the day of love for me. ( The reader may see, for example, my book “The Courage to Love and Serve: the Life Story of Rev. Judith Ann Beaumont-A Roman Catholic Woman Priest And A Saint For Our Times” (2020: Outskirts Press: pp. 292-302), where I describe the fruitful life of service and the fruitful death of Rev. Judy Beaumont, and her post-death appearance to me while blessing a newly ordained deacon at a RCWP (Roman Catholic Woman Priest’s) Ordination. So my Christian faith, and this miraculous experience, has given me a hope of rising again that will take me to the grave and rising, of others, yes, and to my own dying and rising.
In the last year or so, my blog https://www.judyabl.blog has described several difficult losses of my loved ones, and those I serve pastorally in love, and several funerals where I was called to preside. Despite my faith and belief in the resurrection, the reader will see how much I continue to love and miss these dear people. Accepting death as a friend does not mean that it is ever easy to accept the loss of a loved one. But it does mean that one can fully appreciate the fruitfulness of their lives and their entry into the life to come. And it does mean that there can be a real awareness that love does last forever.
So if you are reading this and are facing life threatening illness, or dying and death head on, take heart. There is nothing to fear, for our God is Love and the love we have in our hearts for our loved ones, and theirs for us, will last forever.
Happy Valentines Day-Love is FOREVER ,
Love and blessings, Pastor Judy Lee,
Good Shepherd Ministries of SW Florida
Rev. Dr. Judith Lee, RCWP