Having the talk – about death

Posted on 10/23/2015

Check out the opinion piece written by Rev. Rosemary Lloyd, The Conversation Project’s Advisor to the Faith-Based Community, published today in the Boston Globe. 

Last fall, Crawley’s wife called me to ask if I would be available to officiate at his memorial service in a few weeks. “Oh, Jane, I’m so sorry. I hadn’t heard that Crawley died.” Her reply: “He hasn’t died. He just wants to know that you will do his service. He has it all written out, his obituary too.”

I met Crawley and Jane Cooper 12 years earlier when I was teaching a class at the First Parish in Lincoln on preparing for end-of-life matters. During the course, we reflected together on what makes life worth living and what kind of care we imagined we wanted at the end of life. One of the homework assignments was writing your own obituary.

As a minister, I love teaching and preaching in congregations. I risk bringing the topic of dying into a peaceful sanctuary on Sunday mornings because I believe that facing the reality of our mortality is a sacred pathway into living each day more fully with awareness and gratitude for the blessing of being mortal.

Although the mortality rate is still 100 percent (even in Boston!), we all smile ruefully at Woody Allen’s quip, “I’m not afraid of dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” We really don’t want to talk about it either. Ninety percent of Americans think it’s important to share their wishes for end-of-life care, but fewer than 30 percent of us actually do it.

But if we don’t talk about it, we risk leaving our loved ones in the dark. We may inadvertently create strife at the bedside, causing lasting damage in relationships among the people we love most. Our silence may end up burdening them with guilt or regret because they didn’t know what to do to honor our wishes.

Having “The Conversation,” on the other hand, is homework for the soul. It takes courage and compassion, and Crawley had what it takes. In the end, he taught the teacher how to live with the fierce reality of mortality.

When he was 80, Crawley received a dire diagnosis: metastatic liver cancer. He didn’t want to pursue intensive medical treatment that offered scant hope for additional good, healthy years. He wanted to spend his time at home, in the house he designed, with his best friend and wife of 60 years. He opted for palliative care and, later, hospice care at home.

Friends came to visit, and his church choir came to serenade him. All who came learned something about how to minister to him and to one another in grief and hope, friendship and faith.

I have learned from Crawley and so many others that talking at church — or synagogue, mosque, or temple — about dying can help our culture become one that is more accepting, and less fearful, of death. Congregations are settings where people are encouraged to live with more compassion and less fear. These are deeply human traits to cultivate as our culture remembers how to think about death as something more than a medical failure.

We also know faith communities can be places where the seeds of cultural change are planted — from abolition to equal rights. If we are now becoming aware of the importance of changing the culture around dying, our spiritual homes need to be environments for talking about how values and faith inform our choices about end-of-life care.

Clergy want to respond to this need. But, like doctors, many of us are not trained to have the kind of tender conversations people yearn for when, like Crawley, they are faced with tough news.

The Conversation Project understands this gap. Working with the project as the advisors to faith-based communities, we came up with a simple idea: Invite clergy to preach about the crucial importance of these intimate conversations, and support them with free online resources. Next month, more than 30 Greater Boston congregations of various faiths who have accepted our invitation will celebrate Conversation Sabbath, talking about how their faith supports them in making choices about end-of-life care. Although it wasn’t mentioned in his obituary, I know that Crawley was a Boy Scout back in the day. Their motto: Be Prepared! Crawley prepared as best he could for the sacred journey we must all take some day. He reflected on what mattered most to him about living — and about how he wanted to be cared for as he lived until he died. He expressed his wishes to his loved ones, his doctors, and his community. It was his legacy to us, his parting gift.