Guest post: When Lent coincides with dying

Leona Dueck Penner

Leona Dueck Penner is a long-time writer, especially in Mennonite media. Most recently, she was national correspondent for Canadian Mennonite magazine. She and I were in a writing group together for several years and the friendship formed there has continued. I’m so pleased that she is willing to share her reflections on Lent as a guest post here: 

When M. asked me what I was committing to or giving up during Lent this year,  I replied spontaneously: “Well, I haven’t really been thinking about Lent very much up to now in relation to Jesus’  journey to the cross because we’re quite literally experiencing an ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’  journey ourselves, with pauses at varying stages of the cross, as my brother-in-law L.  continues on in his slow journey towards death.”

A year ago January, L. was told his cancer was no longer responding to treatment and he had about a year left to live. There were some chemo treatments available, however, which could enhance his “quality of life,” though not lengthen his days.

Since then, we’ve watched his body gradually fading before our eyes as he underwent some of these treatments, until August when he discontinued a new treatment that made him very ill.  In September, he quit work and went into palliative care at home, cared for by his wife, B., who also quit work so she could do this. Their understanding, gleaned from his doctor, was that L. had about a month left to live.

Desert near Palm Springs, CA. Photo courtesy: Leona Dueck Penner

But instead, pain control was eventually achieved with morphine, etc., and he unexpectedly “plateaued.” So, they — and we — have had many  wonderful family times together in the intervening months as L. attended to various items on his “bucket list” and was able to celebrate many “last things” such as their 32nd wedding anniversary, Christmas, New Year’s, and most recently, the birth of a new grandbaby in early February.

By now, he is very frail, bedridden, and tired of the dying journey, almost preferring to live in a “dream world” which he quite often inhabits, rather than in the “real world” where he is unable to do very much for himself. Increasingly, he speaks of longing to “go home,” having long since “commended his spirit into the hands of God,” trusting fully in the loving embrace of the welcoming father portrayed in Jesus’ parable.

And not surprisingly, B. and other loved ones are also getting a little weary after having been on what seems, in some ways, like a wake that has lasted for half a year.

But thankfully, at just the right times, we still experience amazing times together with L., and/or come across readings which lift our spirits because they describe  L.’s  present pilgrimage of illness and dying so well, and speak to our own experiences as we accompany him on his last earthly journey.

For example, last week, during our morning readings, my husband and I read the following Rilke quote:

The great secret of death, and perhaps its deepest connection with us, is this: that, in taking from us a person we have loved and venerated, death does not wound us without, at the same time, lifting us towards a more perfect understanding of this person and of ourselves. (  – Rainer Maria Rilke, January 23, 1924. Rilke died of leukemia at age 51 in 1926)

That rings true for us.

And so we give thanks that our Lenten journey this year has coincided with L.’s dying in ways which have helped us experience that “deepest connection” and gain “a more perfect understanding,” not only of L. and of ourselves, but also of the Lenten season itself, which, among other things, provides a faith-based or “mythic” framework which helps us find meaning in our own life and death journeys.



4 thoughts on “Guest post: When Lent coincides with dying

  1. My mind has been preoccupied with death today as we just got word this morning that someone younger than we are passed away yesterday, of liver cancer, diagnosed only in December. When it comes so swiftly and so unexpectedly, that is another kind of reality.

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