My sisters and I were raised in a small town in Colorado that did not have its own Quaker meeting. Though my father would sometimes drive to the next town to attend meeting, we never went as a family. My sisters and I were, at first appearance, raised outside of meeting. However, as I grew up, moved out, explored other faiths, and eventually found a meeting of my own, I realized that though we had been raised officially outside of a meeting, we had been raised solidly within Quakerism. We learned the principles of Quakerism in a very Quaker way: we lived them.
I had assumed that all families spoke of seeing the light in others; emphasized peace, integrity, and equality; and that every house had a “Friends gather here” sign in the living room. It was not until I spent time away from home that I realized that our life at home was our life in worship. In some ways, I was lucky to have been raised simply living my faith. In other ways though, my lack of an official Quaker education left holes in my spiritual grounding. This was not because my family cherry picked what we believed, but because our understandings of Quakerism extended only as far as our personal experiences. When things happened that were beyond these experiences, I became lost. This fact was no more telling than when my father died suddenly, and I found myself and my family not only lost but absolutely adrift, seeking to find the light in such an incredibly dark time.
My father’s passing was a shock. One Saturday morning, I received a disconcerting text from my sister, which simply stated “Call dad.” I walked down to a nearby park with Wi-Fi and Skyped him and my mother. As I looked at my parents on the slightly pixilated screen, I heard my father explaining to me that the pain he had been feeling when I was home for Christmas just a few weeks earlier was actually terminal cancer. There was nothing they could do, and the doctors had given him just a few weeks. Efforts to fight the cancer at this stage would only cause more harm. So instead my father chose to manage his pain and die at home. An ocean away from them, I sat on that park bench and sobbed. The next day I flew from Australia to our family home in Colorado. Our entire family came, my aunts and uncles buying one-way tickets and telling us they were going to stay as long as we needed. The time, however, was very short. Dad deteriorated quickly; within a few days of my arrival, he only spoke a few words between naps. Most of the time, we would simply sit with him in silence. Just nine days after his diagnosis, he passed away.
I had never lost a close family member before. Losing a parent feels as if someone has turned off the gravity, and you have no idea where to put your feet. This was far beyond the borders of my lived Quaker experiences, and I was adrift. One of the things I had loved so much about my Quaker faith—the fact that we have no creed—suddenly became a huge obstacle for me. Did Quakers believe in an afterlife? My dad seemed to think so. Where was he now? Would I ever see him again? I needed answers as I never had before.
In the numb days right after my father passed, dislocated from my meeting (I had recently moved to pursue a PhD), I knew I could not quiet my soul enough to listen inwardly. I was simply hurting too badly. So I turned to my father’s copy of Faith and Practice to try and understand how to deal with death. Though I learned how to plan the memorial meeting, there were few insights on how Quakers grieved. I then turned to Quaker journals and testimonies, but their formal writing and narratives felt like lectures that I couldn’t bear to hear. Next, I tried Quaker poets, finding some solace in John Greenleaf Whittier but still few answers. I started to despair and wonder if my spiritual faith may not have the answers I needed. If God was speaking to me, I could not hear His answers through my sorrow, and the Quakers of the past did not speak to me. But then a Quaker from the present did. Out of the blue, I received an email from someone at my distant meeting, someone that I didn’t know that well. Her father had passed away two and a half years earlier, and she reached out to me to share her experience: the sorrow, confusion, and pain of her father’s passing. She spoke of her love for him; at the same time, I feel that she shared her love for my father (whom she had never met) and for me. She reminded me that Quaker faith was not written down; it was lived, and I was living it. I was trying to find answers in books and histories that weren’t meant to provide guidance. The answers would only come from me being present in the light, and living my faith.
So I put the books down. I thought back over the past few days as my father lay dying. And there I saw my faith. My father was surrounded by his family: his three daughters, his brother and sister, and his best friend of 37 years. He was never alone. Even as he began to fade in and out, we were present on his behalf and holding him in the light. Some people prayed; others held his hand. It didn’t matter what we did, because we all loved. And as all Quakers know, God is love, and God was with us. Friends from his meeting stopped by to see him and ask what they could do. He simply asked that they hold us all in the light. When he became too ill for visitors, some Friends met separately or worshiped alone on our behalf. My sister reminded us that death is a heartbreaking but natural and normal thing. This was going to be a sad time, horribly sad, but it should not be horrible. And it wasn’t; instead, it was filled with a kind of light I had never experienced before: somber and soft.
Looking to my past Quaker experiences to try to understand death, I had been overlooking my current experience as a Quaker. Being a Quaker doesn’t stop, and neither had my Quaker education. I learned about how Quakers experience death because I journeyed alongside someone who was dying, and rested in the silence of those who journeyed with me. I lived the experience as a Quaker, and my father died as a Quaker. When he had the strength, he made jokes and told us he loved us. Though he was scared, he wasn’t angry or sad. He asked to be cremated in simple clothes, in a simple cardboard box. He requested a bio-urn so that we could bury his ashes and he would blossom into a tree. The funeral home had never heard of such a thing but went out of their way to track one down. His meeting obtained approval for the tree to be planted in the meeting garden. We later placed a simple stone bench beneath it, after it had some time to grow, so future Quakers can rest.
When my father slipped from this world, the entire family gathered around him. In retrospect, it strikes me how much this process was like a meeting for worship. In the silence, his brother, sister, and best friend told stories about his life. We opened ourselves up to our memories, and our sorrow. We cried but we also laughed. It was our way of holding him in the light as he began his journey. I also think it was our way of gathering ourselves and finding the light in our sorrow.