In this interview with Donna Schaper, pastor of Judson Memorial Church in New York City, Glen Miller asks about her recent book, Approaching the End of Life—why she wrote it, and what advice she gives to those who are entering their later years in life.
You have been engaged in pastoral ministry for decades. What led you to write Approaching the End of Life now?
Day after day—and sometimes many times a day–I was repeating the same material to people who didn’t know what to do when someone had died. People would show up at Judson Memorial and say, “My neighbor down the hall died and I can’t find her family,” or “my mother-in-law died and I don’t know what to do,” or “my partner just died; he’s not religious and I am, what do I do?” People don’t have family or traditions to fall back on. I tried to write in an open-minded way to fill in for that lack of experience.
We live in a death-denying culture. How do you make people aware of their own mortality?
I preach about death a lot using humor about death and dying. I tell them dying has nothing to do with anyone here because none of you will ever die. Death sneaks up on people and they think, “Oh my God, I’m getting weaker or my hair is changing color.” I work with little stuff like a broken leg or failing hearing. I try to use these occasions as a rehearsal for the bigger events—a life-threatening illness or the final time of dying. I find that people blame themselves for being old and diminished. I try to relieve them of their blame so that they can age more gracefully. I impress upon them that aging is a fact of life and it’s not their fault. I discuss the alternatives to blaming, such as forgiving yourself.
You have a chapter on dotage—sometimes called the declining years. You divide dotage into three periods—early, mid, and late—corresponding roughly to the sixties, seventies and eighties. You identify early dotage as a time to do major work to prepare for a good end to life. How do you motivate a person in good health to get on with these tasks?
I send them directly to the checklist and say I thank God you are in good health and have energy. Let’s take care of everything now—your will, your proxy, and your end-of-life planning. Plan to take a year and do it and after it’s done, plan to review it every year on your birthday. Early dotage is the time to make a pledge to die as well as possible. Don’t wait until your mid-dotage and think, “Oh my God, I should have finished all those things that needed to be done while I still had strength and energy and mental sharpness.”
Can you summarize the tasks that need to be completed in early dotage?
The main work of early dotage is spiritual. People notice the failing hearing and senior moments and dread that aging is happening to them. A better approach is to say to the aging process, “Welcome, I knew you were coming. Thank God I got to live this long.” Accept the fact of aging. Out of that acceptance, discuss with your loved ones how you want to die. It is tremendously important to have that talk to discuss “what I want when I die. I don’t know if I will get to die that way but I want you, my family, to know what I want.” Doing that signals acceptance. It’s hard to get your children to have this talk, as I found out with my own kids. Noting my emphasis on having the talk, they said, “You always wanted to have the sex talk, too.”
Speaking of spiritual preparation, you say it is important to believe in an afterlife? Why is that?
This question is not inconsequential. People say things like, “I’ll go to be with my mother.” Even though I don’t really believe that idea, I say to them, “I love the fact that you think that.” But belief in the afterlife is important. It makes a difference because of the level of trust in the continuity of your life and its leaving. So if you live to be 80 years old, it trivializes your sense of being to think there is nothing further on. So I encourage people to imagine something beyond. In the book, I say it’s not for us to know what it is but we can trust that there was great life before us and there will be great life after us. By trusting that, it allows you to place your own life in the proper context and to make meaning while alive. As people move in to dotage, the sense of nothingness is the greatest threat. I’m trying to replace the nothingness with a something.
How do you approach a person who is terminally ill?
People have arcane and archaic ideas of heaven and hell and think that if they are bad they will go to hell. It’s a very good question to ask: What do you want to do before you die? When they have feelings about having wronged someone, I try to push them to make amends and urge them to find if there is a way to deal with a serious regret they have. As pastors, we provide companionship and offer trust that everything will be okay even if things are not okay now.
If one believes in an afterlife and believes that suffering will end and there will be peace and beauty, what does that say to life-extending medical measures when no medical cure is possible?
This is a specific question that requires a specific answer. Are you 88 years old with everything done or are you 88 with something important left to do or be or say? The answer to this question needs to be custom designed.
You talk about spiritual honesty and its importance as death approaches.
Spiritual honesty allows the person to say, “This is what I don’t know,” or, “This is what I fear.” I have known pastors who didn’t believe in the resurrection and feel guilty about not believing it, so they lie about it every Easter. I said, “So stop lying about it now.”
What three things do you want people to take away from reading Approaching the End of Life?
- Find a companion you can really talk to about these things—a child, a pastor, a friend with whom you can really talk it out. You don’t know what you believe until you talk about it.
- Pay attention to business—just because you are afraid of dying doesn’t mean you should be so stupid as to not have a will and a proxy; it will cost you too much. If you have any sense of frugality or efficiency about your life, don’t avoid the proper disposition of your things.
- Join the human race. You are not alone.