Beginning and end of life

Some people seem to find it extraordinarily difficult to produce offspring, whilst others seem to pop them out like pellets from a shotgun. Too few or too many. Most reproductive problems arise because in mammals like us, the embryo develops in the mother’s belly, whereas in other creatures development takes place in the outside world, or in an egg. In humans, the relationship between mother and fetus is complex and ill-understood, and the wonder is that it does not go wrong more often than it does. This is all fine and dandy from an academic point of view—and the evolution of reproductive biology is utterly fascinating, but when these events do not go according to plan, from a pastoral point of view the effects are devastating. The loss of a growing life, a hoped-for family member. The necessity to grieve for the much-loved though as yet unseen miniature boy or girl. The most difficult moments of my pastoral ministry have centred around such loss of life. There are no easy answers.

Then there’s the other end. How can you cope with the parent who to all intents and purposes has left this world, and yet whose heart and lungs continue to plug on? This is a real problem in dementia, when the person we knew was lost weeks or months or years ago, but yet the still breathing physical body houses someone we don’t know and who doesn’t know us. Coping physically is one thing, but coping emotionally and spiritually is an entirely different matter. There are no easy answers.

I am very moved by the agonies of those that have to cope. All I can offer is support and human comfort. I spent 30 years of my life using human corpses as teaching aids for medical students, so I acknowledge that I have an uncommon attitude to the physical realities of death. In a curious way, though, I think this helps me to cope better with the emotional and spiritual aspects. And if it helps me to cope, I hope it makes me better able to be of use to you in these awful circumstances.

Somewhere between the beginning and end of life is childhood. Below you’ll find some comments on child rearing. The thing that shocked me most was when I realised that I had not been as good a father as I used to think I had been. And that same phenomenon—the realisation of the extent of our self- deception—is the cause of most of the grief I encounter in my pastoral ministry: the regrets and shame that hits people, often when it’s too late. How do we deal with this? Christian doctrine deals with it in a lovely way. Try me some time.


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