Even when we think we’re prepared for death, we’re not. One of the acknowledged experts in spiritual direction calls the reality of death our “existential poverty.” It’s a poverty that we spend most of our days trying to deny.
I’ve confronted this mystery again after the March 29 death of my beloved mother-in-law, Evelyn Grebe. Just about this time last year, Mom Evelyn was diagnosed with pancreatic and intestinal cancer. Given her age and the extent of the disease, she opted immediately to enter hospice and forego treatments. Within two weeks of her diagnosis, her three sons, two-thirds of their spouses, three of her four grandsons and her great-grandson gathered at her home in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. We spent four days together as a family, while Evelyn quietly consulted with her sons, including my husband John, about her final wishes.
Photo by Cynthia B. Astle, UM Insight
Evelyn Grebe with her grandsons (from left) Sean Astle, Dylan Astle and Kyle Astle, and her great-grandson, Grayson Astle, in April 2016.
We had no idea then how long she might live. Her doctor said she might survive “two months or two years,” or any time in between. Almost a year to the day from her diagnosis, she ceased to eat and drink, and my brother-in-law Ed and his wife Lillian, with whom Evelyn lived, called to urge us to come. Before we could arrange our travel, Evelyn died peacefully in her sleep, going to be with Jesus who she loved and followed unwaveringly. She was 82.
As I write this, John and I are preparing to travel to Florida for Evelyn’s funeral, so that she can be buried next to her second husband, William Justice, to whom she was wed for 35 years. Coward that I am, I have already decided that I don’t want to see Evelyn lying in her casket. I don’t want to look at the empty shell of her body now that the selfless, generous person who once lived there has gone. For me, such an act is pointless and needlessly heartbreaking. My vibrant mother-in-law, who once told me she would love me no matter what happened in my marriage to her son, has left this life.
Despite all my training in spiritual direction and end-of-life care, I find myself wrestling with the same questions I have heard from other grief-stricken people. Where did she go? How is it that the great spirit we knew as Evelyn Elizabeth Rivers Astle Justice Grebe is no longer with us? What is it that connects our souls to our bodies, and how does that connection break with such finality? Why must beloved kin and friends and even pets leave us? What will happen to all the good that Evelyn did in her life? Why couldn’t she stay with us a little while longer, when we so need her unshakeable faith to see us through all the terrifying changes in the world around us?
Such questions whirl in my mind like a Texas tornado. The ravenous twister of my grief has sucked up the debris of past deaths. My father’s death at age 45 from a pulmonary embolism was an utter shock; its scars run deep in my psyche. My mother’s death at age 74 from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease was a great sorrow; because she died around Mother’s Day, I find it emotionally impossible now to keep that observance. In just this past year, two longtime friends my age have died from wasting diseases, and I am a long way from being “over” their passing.
From the moment we are born, we continually experience death. The death of our lives in the womb, where we are warm and fed and cherished inside our mothers’ bodies. The death of our innocence, at whatever moment childhood ends. The death of jobs, fortunes, marriages, expectations, dreams. The death of youth, of sex appeal, of vigor and health. At some point, the death of life itself.
Death never takes the same form twice, but it never leaves us. Where we have failed as both church and society, it seems to me, has been in failing to acknowledge the constant reality of death. We behave as if life – all life in all forms – will never end, and the consequences of such self-delusion are dire. Our attempts to legislate this illusion of everlasting earthly life, to contain it inside the boxes we create, inevitably fail because we deny death.
Ironically, I don’t think Evelyn would agree with me. In my bereavement, I wonder if she might have been right. With her unassailable faith in God, she never saw death as an ending. After a lifetime that involved a divorce, great economic struggle, and the deaths of two husbands, Evelyn came to see death as only a passage to eternal life with Jesus Christ that was far more glorious than we could ever imagine. She became unafraid to let go.
That idea kept her going, and whenever times were tough she tried to console others with the same concept. Her faith in God’s goodness and mercy may well be her best legacy to those who now gather to mourn her passing and celebrate her life.
Evelyn Grebe's daughter-in-law, Cynthia B. Astle, serves as Editor and Founder of United Methodist Insight. Evelyn's son, Associate Editor John Astle who also serves as Comptroller and Chief Technical Officer, contributed to this article.