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Living with Dying

Living with Dyingby Deanna A. Thompson

When I was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer at age 42, I started preparing to die. Granted, we should all “live like we’re dying” as singer Kris Allen reminds us, but an aggressive diagnosis ups the urgency on doing just that. I went back to teaching even though I could barely stand because I wanted to be in the classroom one last time. I stopped buying new clothes because I didn’t think I’d have much time to wear them. I insisted on a summer vacation even though I had little surplus energy because I thought that would be the last one I’d take with the family. My husband and I secured burial plots. There didn’t seem to be much time, and I was intentional in my preparations for the end.

Then I went into remission. Having already resigned from my life, I gradually let myself believe that there could be another semester in the classroom, that if I bought new clothes I’d have some time to wear them, that I might get to experience another family vacation. What an amazing turn of events. It seemed that I had experienced a death and a resurrection. Thank God, thank the doctors for allowing me more time.

Living with gratitude has been at the top of the life agenda these past five years of finding remission, losing it, finding it, losing it, then finding it again. The days, months, and years have been accompanied by unfathomable gifts of grace. At the same time, the space occupied by a stage IV cancer diagnosis, the fickle status of remission, and ongoing oncology visits and chemo treatments is often a discomforting one. In a recent The New York Times op-ed piece, Paul Kalanithi, a young resident neurological surgeon recently diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer, tries to figure out how to live in that space. “The path forward would seem obvious,” he writes, “if only I knew how many months or years I had left.”

Even though all of us not on our deathbeds don’t know the hour of our death, we all know we will die. As Kalanithi points out, however, those of us with metastatic cancer know this acutely. In his own grappling with how to live in the midst of a devastating diagnosis, this budding surgeon found wisdom in writer Samuel Beckett’s claim, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on,” statements that capture the competition between resignation and determination, between despair over receiving a pre-mature death sentence and evidence that death is most likely not tomorrow. (back to top)

Between death and resurrection

Recently theologians have become engaged with trauma studies and questions of how Christian thought and practice address “the suffering that remains” (Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining). Certainly the centrality of the cross in the Christian narrative beckons followers of Christ to take suffering and death seriously. The immediate coupling of death with resurrection, however, is a place where theologians engaging trauma theory pause and take stock. For too many who live in the aftermath of traumatic events, a tidy, linear cross-to-resurrection narrative simply doesn’t map the reality of lives undone.

If communities of faith are to help make it possible to “live like we’re dying” for those haunted by the lingering effects of traumatic events, attention must be given to the space that exists between death and resurrection. That space where healing and redemption might be experienced, but perhaps only dimly, where people go on even as they sense they can’t. In my own case, every day in remission is most definitely better than any day without remission. And yet suffering remains. What does it mean to live like we’re dying when trauma remains a heartbeat away?

Martin Luther’s image of Christian community, the “priesthood of all believers” offers some insight on how the church can be with those living with the persistent effects of trauma. One poignant way Luther described the vocation of the “priesthood of all” came in response to 16th-century Germans being taken ill by the plague. Lifting up the model of ministry set forth in Matthew 25, Luther insisted that we are all “bound to each other that no one may forsake the other in distress”(“A Sermon on Preparing to Die,” Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings).

Knowing the temptation of the healthy to keep their distance from the sick, Luther admonished all “the priests” to understand such temptations as “the devil’s doing.” In the midst of a pandemic that took one-third of Europe’s population, Luther’s admonition is quite remarkable. While Christians might rush to the side of “Christ or their mother” should they need care, Luther hammered the command of Matthew 25, proclaiming that care for the sickest is care for Christ. (back to top)

Being present as Christ

In our day, Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas echoes Luther’s call to be with those who suffer, insisting that when the church lives out—or literally, embodies—its call to be the body of Christ in the world, it is present with those who suffer, cutting through the suffering and isolation that remain. But Hauerwas, in “Salvation and Health: Why Medicine Needs the Church” (From Christ to the World: Introductory Readings in Christian Ethics) observes with frankness how the temptation to flee remains ever present:

 [I]t is no easy matter to be with the ill, especially when we cannot do much for them other than simply be present. Our very helplessness too often turns to hate, both toward the one in pain and ourselves, as we despise them for reminding us of our helplessness. Only when we remember that our presence is our doing . . . can we be saved from our fevered and hopeless attempt to control others’ and our own existence. Our willingness to be ill and ask for help as well as our willingness to be present with the ill is no special or extraordinary activity, but a form of the Christian obligation to be present to one another in and out of pain.

Members of the body of Christ are called to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world, attending with special care to those who suffer from the ongoing effects of trauma, being present with and for them in the midst of the days of plague or cancer or death. That’s a difficult calling to embrace. But to “live like we’re dying” with others who are closer to that dying than we are is where God calls us to be.

Living with stage IV cancer, I’m certainly closer to death than those who don’t live with a serious diagnosis. At the same time, I seem to be living mostly in a future where stage IV cancer diagnoses won’t be a death sentence but rather the beginning of living (hopefully for many years) with a chronic condition. How awesome. Yet I hear from the experts that few others with “my kind” of stage IV cancer are doing as well as I’m doing. How lousy.

Being an anomaly makes that discomforting middle space a bit more uncomfortable. But I go on, trying to lean as fully as possible in to that space, embracing with gratitude the body of Christ occupying that space with me, praying that more who share my diagnosis will soon share the space with me, and hoping that I have more days, months, and years, to live in the aftermath of death, to glimpse healing and resurrection, and to understand how to respond to “I can’t go on” with “This is the day the Lord has made” and “I’ll go on.” (back to top)

Hoping for more

As many of us know so well, even as we pray and hope for more in this life, those prayers and hopes are not always realized. It is vital, then, that in our communities we talk not just about hoping for more in this life, but also for more in the life to come testified to in Scripture.

When I think about how cancer has changed the way I think and talk about hope, I have become aware of how contemporary theologians like myself have a lot to say about the present and seemingly little to say about the future—that is, about life after death.

When talk of heaven results in devaluing life on earth, there’s a problem. Christian faith is an expectant faith, but not an other-worldly one. We believe God in Jesus Christ became intimately involved in this-worldly realities. Therefore, it’s appropriate that our hope be grounded in life in this world.

I get the desire to focus on the present. As a cancer patient who’s also a theologian, I see a need for more theological work on how to talk about “living like we’re dying” in the here and now. Indeed, the gospel’s main attraction—Jesus—spent most of his time not just talking about God’s future but in siding with the outcasts and healing the sick. We need to talk more about how contemporary incarnations of the body of Christ side with those with cancer and participate in the possibilities of healing in the here and now.

At the same time, I wonder whether those of us who talk about God for a living do a disservice to the God of the Bible and to those who suffer when we limit our discussion to the present. After all, the Bible is full of promises of life with God not only in the here and now but also in life beyond the grave.

For all of us who struggle to trust in these promises— even in the midst of death-dealing conditions—hearing that there’s more than just this terminal diagnosis or that life-shattering earthquake offers a word of hope. That the suffering and trauma of this world doesn’t have the final word is an essential part of the gospel’s good news.

In the scientific postmodern age in which we live, many of us emphasize the limits of knowing what lies beyond this life.

While Christian faith talks of heavenly feasts and bodily resurrection, we wonder how to set these claims alongside the science of decomposing flesh or suspicions regarding the possibility of continued consciousness beyond death.

Even as I admit ignorance on the details, I take heart in the fact that the biblical images of life with God are consistently and inescapably communal. In Romans, Paul asserts that in hope we have been saved; he also insists that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. At the heart of the vision of life beyond this one is the affirmation of continued connection, of life in community.

As I attempt to “live like I’m dying” in the midst of a serious diagnosis, the body of Christ that surrounds me helps me hope that today’s sustaining connections with family, friends, and the church are glimpses of God’s promised life to come. In the midst of uncertainty, we go on, even when we’re not sure we can, hoping for more in this world and the next. (back to top)

Deanna A. Thompson, Ph.D., is professor of religion at Hamline University, St. Paul, Minn., where she also teaches classes in African American studies, women studies, and social justice. She has written a book about her cancer: Hoping for More: Having Cancer, Talking Faith, and Accepting Grace, and she speaks and writes about living with cancer.

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