ministers dread, and nearly all of us have to cope with at one time or another, is a string of deaths in the congregation within a relatively short period of time. It's hard on our psychic energy, our tear ducts, our resiliency. If we're lucky, we have bounce-back time between memorial services, but sometimes that doesn't happen.
I've been serving a lovely small congregation of mostly-retired folks for seven years now and had done very few memorial services, maybe three or four. Most were elderly folks, at the far edge of their lives, and ready to let go.
Then, bang, bang, bang, in a matter of just over a year, several deaths---from chronic illness, cancer, self-inflicted, sudden pneumonia. Not all were members of the congregation; for a couple, I was the only connection to the church. But with each person, I had walked "that lonesome valley" of anticipation of death, in some way, either vicariously through family members or directly holding a hand.
Each person was different in how they approached the inevitable; they were resigned or angry or secretive or unpredictable or indomitable. Yet each person came to that moment when the spirit left the body and only the husk remained, like a cocoon left behind when the butterfly burst forth.
I have never felt so filleted by experience as I have during this past many months----scored right down the middle of my heart, with relief, with grief, with fear, with anger. And no sooner did one experience's pain ebb, than the next one began. Eventually, I became somewhat desensitized, relieved if others had to perform ceremonies, resentful if appreciation didn't appear fast enough to suit me, maintaining professional distance just to get through.
But that protective distance was eventually breached, because right now, a beloved member of our congregation is in his last days of life, after suffering a terrible fall early in June. He sustained a head injury which could never be healed and the trauma to his brain could not be reversed. This man has been the Viking giant of our congregation for many years, offering leadership and resources that we needed badly, forcefully backing the building of our own home ("I want it built in time for my memorial service!" he'd say---and so it is), serving as our president, our canvass chair, our membership chair, as a worship leader, in the choir, always in the foyer greeting new people. Nobody who ever met Baird Bardarson would ever forget him.
We are all struggling with this impending death, even more than the others, because for awhile it looked like he would recover. And now that hope has been taken away and we are awaiting the news that he is gone.
A friend within the congregation, who knows how hard all this has been on me, asked me if there was any way she could be helpful right now. "Yes, there is," I said. "Don't die."
"I won't," she said.