Monday, July 26, 2010

One of the things...

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.

13 comments:

LinguistFriend said...

That, of course, is powerful writing, Kit, responding to a circumstance for which the blog provides a welcome and appropriate release. I hope that there are strong replacements for your friend Baird's various roles. Some people bemoan the issues of an older congregation, but a largely retired group tends to have the time and ability to contribute to an institution such as yours. In this you are fortunate, but you convey powerfully that it has its other side.

Libby Roberts said...

Kit-
Powerful stuff. The words you use to describe Baird, "This man has been the Viking giant of our congregation for many years, offering leadership and resources that we needed badly . . ." convey the power and influence of our dear Baird. You're so right. Those who met him didn't forget him. We must all gather our forces and ask ourselves, "What can I do to honor Baird in this difficult months to come without him." You will be a great help as we all try to follow in his footsteps, asking ourselves, "What would Baird do now? How would Baird respond?" We can do this!

ms. kitty said...

LF, serving this congregation has indeed been the most wonderful time in my five-career life. Many, many blessings come with a congregation like this one, full of church-men and -women, who know how to "do" church and do it right.

Libby, thanks for your inspiring and farseeing thoughts. I have begun to consider how we will carry on Baird's legacy.

Sarah said...

Baird was steadfast in greeting the new person and making them feel welcome and at home. If I do that even a fraction of the time he spent doing it, it will make a difference. Baird has been one of the most welcoming, friendly people I've ever known - his family only a close second because they have all echoed this way of being. My thoughts are with them all as they travel these dark waters. Peaceful sailing to you, Baird, and may you be there to help the rest of us when we cross.

ms. kitty said...

A well-deserved tribute to our Viking giant, Sarah. He has modeled a welcoming, warm presence for all of us.

Barbara ten Hove said...

I met Baird 25 years ago when he was a leader at East Shore in Bellevue. He always had a bright smile that filled his whole face, particularly his beautiful blue eyes. He was a wonderful family man, powerful churchman, and a doctor of great compassion. When someone of Baird's caliber dies in a congregation, it always feels to me as if a mighty oak has fallen. I find comfort in the many seedlings he planted and the ways his spirit will live on in all he touched.

ms. kitty said...

A mighty oak indeed, Barbara, thank you. I am so lucky to have several former EUC leaders in this congregation. You and Leon trained these folks well! They are huge contributors to the wellbeing of the congregation and each of them is a mighty oak. Thank you!

Libby Roberts said...

Sarah & Barbara,
Your words ring so true! This is how we honor Baird. He gave us the opportunity to learn from him. Are we fortunate, or what? May his journey be as full of light and good will as was he, and may his family take comfort from his spirit that will abide in this congregation.

Mile High Pixie said...

BAAHAHAA! I know laughter might not be the way to respond to this post, but I love the way you ended it: "Don't die." It's the kind of thing I'm feeling right now with all the people and issues pulling at me--if someone asks how they can help, y response would have to be "don't ask me to give you anything or do anything for you."

Rev. Kit, you have possible one of the very toughest jobs on the planet. Consoling the dying and family of the deceased is already hard, but when those deceased are also your friends and neighbors, and from the sound of Baird, your hero--how/when do YOU grieve? Who consoles the counselor in her time of sadness?

ms. kitty said...

Dear Pixie, you do. You and LF and Libby and Sarah and Barbara and all those who have reached out to me and others in little ways. It helps so much to be together in grief. At the same time, I know I need to find an outlet that is personal, not just communal, and I do have a person I talk to regularly about the issues of ministry. I'll be seeing her soon, and I feel the need of her comfort.

ms. kitty said...

Grief has to season, too. There has been a period of time, during Baird's decline, when communal grief and support for others has been enough for me. But as we come to the final days of that period, I know I will be walking out onto the single-track path and will need to stop and meet with my support person. Thanks for caring.

Miss Kitty said...

Oh, dear, Ms. K...I'm so sorry. The HKC critters and I send you hugs and love.

ms. kitty said...

Thank you, my friend.