Several weeks before she passed away this summer, Shuling Chen gave her friends an opportunity to travel with her on the path of suffering and dying and living and loving. She did so by hosting a time of worship and reflection with us at the Jewish General Hospital where she was receiving palliative care. It was a deeply meaningful service of song and testimony and reflection and prayer, held in a beautiful solarium looking out on St. Joseph’s oratory. It was as human and honest an event as anything I have experienced in my life.
To be human is to travel in company with others. Some of those others are family members and close friends, with whom our truer selves may be revealed. Other fellow-travellers are women and men who walk alongside us more at arms length. Whoever our travelling companions, however, and whatever the degree of openness and disclosure between us, being together on the way defines us as human. In fact, we betray our humanity when we try to walk in isolation. Shuling’s invitation to celebrate and pray and worship with her represented an insistence that even the path toward death is one that we can and must share with others, in faith.
Shuling’s death came at the end of a very difficult year-and-a-half struggle with cancer. And one of the questions I wrestled with through that time was how to remain in company with her – how to remain a friend during her hospital stays, her days at home, and her return trips to the emergency room. I wouldn’t characterize Shuling as an intimate or close friend, but would describe her as a dear friend – someone with whom I shared in work and laughter and friendship over a number of years. So for me it was a question of how to accompany Shuling without my presence being a burden to her; how to speak with her and learn from her on this path while also respecting the nature of our relationship. Continue reading