“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

On the death of a friend

A friend of mine, a woman who lived her life with severe intellectual disabilities died this week.  She wasn't particularly old, maybe in her 40's.  She lived in a group home with other adults with similar disabilities.  Her roommate is a wonderful gal, who saw her relationship with her roommate as a ministry.  You see, she herself was cared for by a woman with down's syndrome in the institution in which she lived as a child, and now feels it is her responsibility to care for people with down's syndrome.  She has now had two roommates over the last 16 years who were women with down's syndrome, very similar in personality that she has cared for and has ministered to.

Anyway, the woman who died, wasn't particularly ill, she had had the cough that has been going around Southern California this year, but otherwise was not sickly.  The men who also lived at her group home told me as I walked in the door last night, "Pray for Sally.  She in hospital.  Pray for Sally."  They then went on to tell me how a fire truck had come and took her away to the hospital on a bed.  I knew that she had died, but they didn't as of yet.

But Sally (not her real name) was a sweet woman.  I think I will always remember her as being the gentlest person I have ever met.  When she would touch your hand, or touch your face, her touch was so caring, so so gentle.  She used few words, and was at times distracted by things around her.  She would interact with you somewhat when you got her attention.  She would respond "yes" at times to questions with a kind of upswinging inflection to her voice.  She would attempt to communicate at times, and we were always delighted when we understood what she was trying to communicate.  When I would visit the group home, I would bring Coke and ice cream cones.  She enjoyed both, and although she would occasionally need encouragement to eat her dinner, she never needed encouragement to eat her ice cream cone.  As I was thinking about her passing, it gave me great joy to think that I had the privilege of doing something for her that she really enjoyed.  I may have given her more ice cream cones than any one else in the waning years of her life, and may have given her her last ice cream cone.  It makes me smile to think of that.  She had the ability to bring out the best in people around her.  As I have already said, her gentleness caused others around her to be gentle with her and to be patient with her.  Her gentle voice caused people around her to be kind and gentle with their own voices.  I wish I had the ability to recruit that kind of response from people.

Her "working life" was spent going to a day program, largely adult day care, but that type of program maximized her abilities vocationally.  I think it took much to get her to move from place to place.

She was loved by her roommate, by the group home caretakers, who both cried at her passing and by the men at the group home who were so intent on her being prayed for while she was in the hospital.  I too will remember her the rest of my life.

Because her group home parents are limited in their ability to speak English, they asked me if I would tell the men in the group home about the fact that she died.  I must say that I have never had the experience of sharing the death of a person with a group of intellectually disabled adults before.  I asked them to all sit down together on a couple of couches and I sat on the floor in front of them.  
"Do you remember that you told me that the fire truck came, and they took Sally to the hospital on the bed?"  
"Yes" they all replied and recanted the excitement of the fire men and the fire trucks, and said once again, "You need to pray for Sally, she in hospital."  
"Well, Sally was very sick when she went to the hospital and while she was in the hospital, she died."  
"She died?" 
"Yes, Sally died in the hospital.  That means that we won't ever see Sally again and that makes me sad.  But we know that Sally is in heaven with Jesus."
There was silence for a moment.
"So we will be sad for a while, but we can be happy because we know that Sally is in heaven with Jesus."
"Sally is in heaven" several of the men repeated.
One of the men said, "Will I die?"
"Yes, you will die, and I will die, and Kathi (my wife who they know) will die, and Fred (the group home dad) will die.  We will all die someday."
"I no die" said one of men.  "I no die, Jeff."
"Well you will die someday, and you will be with Jesus in heaven."
"I no die, Jeff."
I then led them in a prayer for Sally's family, and they stopped asking me to pray for Sally in the hospital.  It seemed they understood.

One last comment on this.  My wife Kathi noted to me today that in at least two recent situations where a close friend of one of our friends who are Christians with intellectual disabilities died, that there is immediate acceptance.  Sure they are sad, but very briefly, and they are quick to talk about their friend being with Jesus, being in heaven.  It is as if their faith is so strong, that they immediately accept the truth of what they have been told about what happens to someone who dies "in the Lord."  As 1 Thessalonians 4:13 says, "But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest of those who have no hope."  My friends with intellectual disabilities appear to grieve as people with hope.  

Upon hearing about Sally's passing, her roomate commented, "She doesn't have down's syndrome anymore."  I don't know if that is true, but I know what she meant and what she meant is true.  Her future is one that is entirely unimpaired in her vision and her understanding of God.



Anonymous said...

I am so sorry to hear about Sally's passing. I know she will be missed by Jane, everyone else at her home, her church friends, and anyone else touched by this gentle soul.

Dance with Jesus, Sally.

Julie said...

I'm so sorry about your friend, Jeff. I had a friend like Sally once who was so gentle in her very being that she brought out the gentleness in everyone else around her. She's with Jesus also.

Having known a lot of people with developmental disabilities who have passed away, I've had conversations like you did with your friends about Sally. And conversaitons about death in general. I guess just living life with people means that we have to deal with normal stuff like death, and I've noticed the same things you have, that many with developmental disabilities have an immediate acceptance of death with so much faith and hope, even for one woman I knew with a developmental disability who lost her own son.

Again, I'm sorry about your friend. Thanks for honoring her and sharing with us about her.

bethany said...

Thank you for sharing this. Sally sounds like a beautiful person.

Stephanie said...

I played the entire dilogue in my mind about Sally's passing. I was fortunate enough to have met Sally and her friends a couple of years ago. I instantly went back to thinking how well she was cared for by her roomate and loved by all because she was so angelic. I think your wife really put the grieving of your friends in an amazing perspective and makes you think about blind faith and how amazing it is.
Bless you for sharing the story, I lost a student this year to an terrible accident and to think that Sally's life was celebrated by her loved ones is heartwarming. I wish we could all cherish every life for what they gave us.