Lifestyle,  Thought-provoking

Learning death: the importance of connection

Jenny Sinclair describes how her mother’s efforts to support her dying husband, Jenny’s father, taught her how relationships with each other and with God make it easier to face the natural reality of death. And also about the meaning of life.

On the surface Living With Dying is a book about how my mother, Grace Sheppard, navigated an intense period caring for my father David during the last period of his life, which included a diagnosis of cancer, illness and death. 

But for my mother this was not only a story of the loss of her great love, it also became a journey of discovery about the meaning of life. She discovered the significance of relationship: relationship with God and with each other.

Throughout the pages of this book we see how Grace navigates tragedy, distress and loss by discerning and developing a set of practices. These practices emerge through hard experiences, which she shares in candid and grounded terms. 

Key to this was the practice of gratitude, which released her from self-pity and opened up endless possibilities of joy in the darkest times. Another was her practices of care: care for David, for herself, for the life in her garden, for family and neighbours, for mind, body and spirit – essentially a story of good stewardship of the gifts she had been given.

In this book Grace deals head-on with the taboos around death, demystifying it and exploring it as a natural part of life. 

Recognising the human instinct to ‘cling on’, she learns that loss is easier to bear not by avoiding the difficult questions but by acknowledging the many ‘mini bereavements’ that characterise dying. 

She learns that ‘letting go’ and opening up to what she regards as our natural relationship with God, our home, can be a way of living with dying that is truly life-giving for all involved.

The book is a powerful testimony of what we might refer to as our ‘calling’, or sense of vocation. Her trust in the mystery of our relationship with God is evident throughout the book. Within this frame, she explores who God is – for her, not a distant, abstract concept, but the embodied Christ, a friend. In fact, the working title for this book was originally The Friendship of Christ.

Grace’s life is a testament to resilience, faith, and love, as she navigates the complexities of all she had to face. From the onset of her agoraphobia during her honeymoon to the final moments of her battle with breast cancer, Grace’s story communicates the importance of relationship with God and neighbour.

As a clergyman’s wife, she faces the challenge of reconciling her personal calling with her sense of what others expected of her. In her own words, Grace reflects on this struggle:

“I felt like I was suffocating under the weight of other people’s expectations.”

Throughout her journey, Grace traverses various landscapes – both literal and metaphorical – each presenting its own set of trials and revelations. Her resilience is put to the test early on when she is diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of 31, a battle that she describes as ‘the fight of my life’.

Despite or perhaps because of her vulnerability, coping with physical and mental illness for over three decades, Grace discovers the transformative power of human connection. 

She tells the story of a moment of liberation in her 50s that propels her towards healing, recalling that, “It was as if the walls of fear and isolation that had surrounded me for so long had finally crumbled away.”

The journey takes another turn when my father is diagnosed with cancer, casting a shadow over their first few years of private retirement after decades of public life. At this point they had a choice: to be private or to be open to the many offers of friendship and support. 

They decide to be radically open and this heralded an extraordinary period of grace in their lives that touched all who were involved. It is this experience of living in relationship with God and neighbour that makes up the main body of the book.

Following David’s death, Grace navigates the uncharted waters of widowhood. She shares candidly what she learned about bereavement. 

It was moving for all of us to see Grace flourish in later life, finding her own ministry in writing, mentoring and leading retreats. Having fulfilled her vocation in marriage, playing a pivotal role in my father’s mission, towards the end of her life she was called into a particularly fruitful period.

You might think that my own work came as a logical conclusion of my upbringing. This is true in a way, but by a very circuitous route. I was a rebel when I was young and caused my parents a lot of grief and I was estranged from the church. 

Then, in my mid-20s, I had a conversion experience and was received into the Catholic Church quite against my and their expectations. This was not easy but a key stage in a discernment in which I eventually – twenty three years later – discovered my own vocation.

It was only when I was in my late 40s, the year after my mother’s death, that the work I am now doing first emerged. I was seeing signs of a cultural and political malaise beginning – the consequences of a dysfunctional political economy and an aggressively secularised culture. I saw the churches and Christian leaders struggling to respond in a deeply confused society in urgent need of healing and hope.

I had a prompting of the Holy Spirit and others joined me. We set up Together for the Common Good to discern a way forward, our work now dedicated to spiritual and civic renewal. We work across the churches and our mission confronts the root causes, advocating for a shift away from individualism and collectivism towards a holistic, relational worldview informed by Christian tradition, in particular Catholic social thought.

What I find remarkable is that I have come to pretty much the same conclusion as Grace did, the importance of local relationships.

We arrived by different routes. I landed on the concept of common good – the need to build relationships between human beings who have become estranged. 

In personal terms that means a commitment to human connection and friendship, about which Grace was so passionate, and in particular across class, educational background and opinion. In civic and political terms this becomes a matter of statecraft. For the Church, it requires rebuilding local relationships, creating a sense of family, and acting in solidarity with poor communities.

Fundamentally, the key estrangement that needs attention is our relationship with God. The great deception of ‘modernity’s wager’ – which claims we don’t need God to thrive – has been around since the Enlightenment but especially over the last 70 years. Reconciling our relationship to God is central for the flourishing of humanity and the natural world.

As Grace discovered on her adventure, God is our natural home. God is not abstract but personal. Christ called us friends not servants. And the closer we get to God, the less we fear death, the better our relationships, the more freedom we have and the more fulfilling life gets. The more we discover God through relationship with our neighbours, the thinner the veil between heaven and earth becomes.

This is a very slightly edited version of an article which was first published on the website of Together for the Common Good. For the original article, click here. To download the full version of Jenny’s talk, click here. It is republished in Adamah with permission.

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Jenny Sinclair is founder and director of Together for the Common Good, a Christian charity dedicated to spiritual and civic renewal. Drawing on Catholic Social Thought, she works with leaders, churches and schools, helping them make sense of this time of seismic change and discern their unique vocation for the common good.

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