Grief resides deep in the body. My sense of loss is palpable. At times my heart literally aches, I breathe deeply letting out heavy sighs for relief, I long for my dog’s warm solid body to hold. Now it is simply a pile of ashes.
When my mother ended up in the ICU unconscious, with pneumonia that had entered her bloodstream and caused kidney and respiratory failure, and the doctors told me that she would never be able to recover from the seriousness of the infection, I knew what I had to do. I was profoundly grateful for our conversations a couple of years before about her wishes. As an only child the decision was entirely up to me. I was completely supported by my husband and aunt, but there was an existential singularity to my decision, knowing that my choice meant she would die. I was reassured by a compassionate chaplain that it was the disease process that was killing her and not my actions, I was simply allowing her body to release.
After we took her off of life support I sat with her two more days waiting and watching, holding her, anointing her arms and legs with hospital lotion, singing to her, telling her how much I loved her. When the machine that measured her breath and heartbeats finally began to slow markedly I put my arms around her body and prayed for her release into the Great Beyond.
With Duke the process was different. For some reason our culture determines putting animals to sleep that are sick is compassionate, but there is great debate about assisted suicide for humans in our culture. That is not a topic I want to explore right now, but I do find it curious. The doctor said that he would bleed to death and in great distress, so the kindest thing was euthanasia. I couldn’t do it in the hospital that night. I needed him home one more day. I wanted him to die in a place of familiarity and comfort. I held him that whole day, stroking his warm soft fur, gazing at him as he slept and wondering what dogs dream when they are about to die, telling him I loved him. When the vet came to our house I put my arms around him, kissed his sweet muzzle again and again, and prayed for his gentle release into the Great Night.
Being so close to death changes you. Holding the bodies of two persons/creatures I loved as they slipped into the next world have been two of the holiest and most terrible moments of my life.
While in graduate school I wrote a whole dissertation on what it would mean if we took seriously the vulnerability of the body for our spirituality. Coming out of my own and my mother’s experience with chronic illness and the women I have worked with I had a unique perspective on what society demands of our bodies. The ways our obsessions with busyness grind our bodies down and also stave off contemplation of our own limits.
What if we stopped denying our bodily vulnerability through our cultural obsession with youth and health and through our perpetual busyness and need to get ahead? What if we allowed the wisdom of aging, with all of its confrontation of limits, to inform our path? What if embracing the fact that we are going to die were cultivated as a path of holiness? What if our faith communities were places we could truly honor the delicate and tender vulnerability of the body, with all the beauty and sorrow that brings?
After my mother died I held my husband more closely, feeling his heartbeat reverberate against my own, knowing that one day both will stop. We do not know how or where or when, but we do know with certainty that it will happen. Awareness of mortality brings a sweet depth to the world, tinges it with the sadness of loss, but also deepens my perspective on knowing that time truly is precious.
-Christine Valters Paintner