by The Rev. Dr. Lauren R. Stanley
I frequently wake in the morning completely surprised that I have made it through the night.
No, I am not surprised that I am alive.
I am surprised when I awake to discover that it is morning, and that apparently, one of my people has also made it through the night.
For four months running, I have had parishioners who were dying—actively dying—at our local hospital. From the moment they entered the hospital, we knew that they would not leave it alive.
None of us expected their stays there would be long. The parishioners were very, very ill. The doctors had declared there was nothing more that could be done for them. The patient care was converted to hospice care, at which our hospital excels. The nurses, the technicians, the cleaning people, the administrators, the social workers—every one of them visited, prayed, said comforting words, made coffee, covered the smoke alarms so that we could smudge the room with sage and sweet grass, brought blankets and pillows for the families who stayed, day and night, to watch over their loved ones.
Day after day, night after night, we all expected the end to come.
But we are not in charge of that end, are we?
So we who watched, who loved, who prayed… all we could do was wait.
And whenever the end seemed imminent, we would gather. Lots of us, usually. We would say the prayers, sing hymns, play music, murmur quietly off to the side whenever someone new would arrive.
Each time I left, I would talk with the nursing staff. “If anything happens, if it seems close, call me, please. I will come right back,” I would tell them. They would nod and assure me, “It won’t be long now.”
And then I would go home, go to bed, and awake in the morning, surprised I had made it through the night.
When I would return to the hospital the next day, all of us would say the same thing: We cannot believe he/she is still here. We thought for sure that last night would be it. We didn’t expect him/her to still be here.
- • •
Here on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, we do death well.
This is true of most Native American communities, I am told.
We don’t hide dying and death away. Instead, we confront it head-on, we participate in it, we pray through it, we celebrate and mourn simultaneously.
We go and sit with those who are dying for hours and hours at a time. We talk about who these loved ones have been to us in our lives, who they have loved, how they have made us laugh or cry. We talk about every single positive thing we can think of. Often the rooms roar with laughter as stories are told, sometimes at the loved ones’ expense, how they were fooled by the Trickster into doing something silly or even stupid, or how they tricked someone else into doing something silly or even stupid. We talk, often quite openly, about what our lives will be like once our loved one is gone. We discuss wake and funeral plans—where they will be held, how many nights of wake we will hold (usually two), which funeral home will handle the arrangements, which drum group will sing. We let our veterans’ groups know that the end is near, so they can sing the honor songs and do the honor presentations and call the final roll call for every single veteran.
We talk about who will provide the food for each feast after each wake, and for the feast that follows the funeral and burial.
We begin to gather the quilts and blankets and gifts that will be needed for the giveaways.
We choose pallbearers and honorary pallbearers.
We visit the cemetery to choose the burial site.
And we pray.
My God, we pray well here.
We pray for healing, for God’s healing, because we know, in the end, that that is all that counts.
We pray for release for the loved one.
We pray for the ancestors to come and take the loved one by the hand, to guide them on their spiritual journey to be with God.
And we pray for the end to come, so that our loved ones will find peace at the last.
I have been here on the Rosebud for nearly two years. In that time, I have officiated at nearly 150 wakes and more than 70 funerals. In that time, there have been more than 600 wakes, more than 300 funerals, officiated by ministers of other denominations.
Death stalks us every single day.
We die from disease, from accidents, from a lack of sufficient health care. We die from alcoholism and drugs, from homelessness and extreme cold and extreme heat. We die from inexplicable sudden infant death syndrome as well as old age. We die from drownings and falls and, on occasion, from murder.
Sometimes, death is swift and unexpected, and we are all in shock.
Sometimes, it comes slowly, like the fog that rises up from the grassy plains, creeping its way toward us, taking its time before it envelops us, leaving us surprised in the mornings.
However it comes, we do not shy away from it.
Instead, we embrace it because we know that it is an important part of the sacred circle of life that begins at birth and carries on forever with the ancestors.
When it is a slow death, as it has been for the last four months for some of my parishioners, I awake each morning surprised to have made it through the night.
I know that I am not alone in that surprise.
The Rev. Dr. Lauren R. Stanley serves as Priest-in-Charge of the Rosebud Episcopal Mission (West) on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in the Diocese of South Dakota. She has served there since February 2013. Previously, she served as a missionary in Sudan and Haiti.