Following a Divine Road Map: A Lesson Inspired by the Life of Elizabeth Edwards

Although we would all long for idyllic lives, Edwards knew that the road of life can be tumultuous and full of unexpected twists and turns, and that meaning is culled from gratitude, faith, and relationships.
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Our family loves to travel, especially road trips. We relish getting out the maps, following our path through different states, and marveling at the weather and scenery at different rest areas. I find that I even enjoy trips for work, even though key note speakers at regional or national conferences tend to under-whelm. Several years ago, I greatly anticipated hearing Elizabeth Edwards speak at a national hospice and palliative care conference. At the last minute, she needed to cancel because her father was seriously ill and dying and she was needed as a caregiver and a daughter. I was disappointed, but as professionals who value caregiving and end of life care, how could we not understand her response to the demands of life's changing landscape?

With Edwards' death, we lose a valuable voice who spoke for those who are grieving the death of a child or a parent or even a marriage as well as for those who are navigating the landscape of serious illness. She found ways to carve meaning and hope out of each day while very much aware that she was walking in the shadow of death.

Decent physical health and a hectic lifestyle can lure us into a false reality where we fail to see the shadow of death that hangs over us. We travel maps of our own making, oblivious to the often nuanced changes in our life landscapes. But Edwards embodied what many of us in the hospice world see: the shadow of death catches up with us all regardless of age, gender, race, religion, economic class, or life history, and most often we die the way we live. Although we would all long for idyllic lives, Edwards knew that the road of life can be tumultuous and full of unexpected twists and turns, and that meaning is culled from gratitude, faith, and relationships.

In her book, Resilience, she writes about learning how to live the road of life with honesty and humility:

"We so desperately want a map that lays out in serene pastels the paths our lives are supposed to take that we create them, we gravitate to them, we embrace and internalize them, all to no good end, for as my friend Gordon Livingston says, 'When the map does not comport to the ground, the map is wrong."

Her life story traces how when death or disappointment changed the ground beneath her feet, she tried not to grieve the land nor force the land to change, but to change her map.

In this Christian season of Advent, I think of the countless ways that the map changed beneath the feet of the characters of the nativity. Gabriel's visions to Mary and to Joseph forced them to fold up their maps and follow a divine one. As they traversed the dry and sandy ground to Bethlehem, how much they must have pondered the ways that their external and internal landscapes had changed. The star forced the magi to change their maps and search for a king in unexpected places. As they made their way to the stable and then home by another road, they must have marveled at where the star of God was leading them. The shepherds' nightly routine was upended by the angel song, and they adjusted their maps to include honoring the Messiah. As the sky lit up with angelic light, they must have wondered, why them, why now, why here?

How tempting it must have been to think that the ground should change and not their maps? Yet in faith, they allowed their life map to bend to the divine.

Although many are grieving the death of Elizabeth Edwards, most acutely her children, her family, and her friends, I am thankful that there was one more human who walked this earth in humility: inspiring us to live with one eye on our map, one eye on the landscape, and a heart fixed always on the Divine.

"How long the road is. But for all the time the journey has taken, how you have needed every second of it in order to learn what the road passes by."--Dag Hammarskjold, Markings

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