Ashes to Ashes

This Monday our family went to the funeral of Uncle Ron, whom I barely knew. An uncle twice removed, we had met perhaps four times in life: his daughter’s wedding, my wedding, and two family reunions. Our conversations were brief but good. The first one was him telling me how much he was looking forward to retirement from his work and how hard it was to find good workers these days (they told the young guys all they had to do was show up for work, pass a urine drug screen test, and they would have a job; a third of them failed anyways). The second was how he was relieved but trying to ease into the retired life. That was the last time we’d meet because the cancer came fast.

Metastatic B-cell lymphoma. The ferocity of the disease and the futility of interventions was difficult for my new and beloved extended family. As my wife noted, it was the first death of our parents’ generation and all the more disquieting. I missed the service itself to be on babysitting duty for our active toddler, instead watching him play on a bare playground near the funeral home, listening to the quietness of the country hills of Pennsylvania. I listened to the muted and off-hand reflections from those who knew him and they were as he was: straightforward, tinged with humor, faithful, loyal, and dedicated to family.

I also heard about his journey to faith through weekly Sunday dinners with his mother-in-law. I heard about his transition to hospice and, in the final days of his life, an acceptance of the inevitable outcome and a literally fearless trust in the Lord.

In a time of grandstanding, trolling, noise, and uncertainty, it has been both sobering and refreshing to be reminded of certain things. I was recently reminded of an article describing the five most common things regretted by the dying as studied by a palliative nurse:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

“This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.”

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

“Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”

In Christ, we have redemption of the life that is in such a way that points to the greatness of what is to come. It is not achieved by political power or even by the work of our hands. It is received as a gift from divinity, through which we have access to joy inexpressible:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. — 1 Peter 1

On this Ash Wednesday, we remember that from ashes we came and to ashes we will return. I look forward to the fifth time I will see Uncle Ron.

Ashes to Ashes