Paul tells us in Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
But that promise can also make the pain and grief we feel so much harder, in some ways, and so much more confusing.
I had this thought watching The Long Goodbye, a documentary about mommy blogger Kara Tippetts, which was released on video March 22, the fourth anniversary of her death. She was a wife, a mom, a vibrant voice in Christian circles. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer in 2013, and she spent the last two years of her life in the public eye—“dying by degrees,” as she said, with honesty and grace.
The Long Goodbye isn’t an easy watch. And, I imagine, it wasn’t an easy documentary to film, either. I had a chance to talk with Jay and Sofia Lyons, the film’s makers, via e-mail about the process. They both had some interesting, and even inspiring, things to say.
Paul Asay: How did you get involved with Kara’s story? What drew you to it?
Jay Lyons: I initially met Kara through Facebook. I had been wanting to do a piece about end-of-life issues, suffering and even dying, because I felt like it was missing from our culture. And as a Christian person, I also wanted to tell the story of hope in the afterlife- that we believe that there is more to this life. Our world is so incredibly focused on the here and now, especially in this “information overload” age. So a Facebook friend posted a status asking for prayer for her “pastor’s wife” (that was Kara), and I was introduced to Kara, and we were off and running!
Asay: I’m not sure if you’ve seen Free Solo, the story of Alex Honnold’s solo climb up Yosemite’s El Capitan, but I was struck by something the filmmakers said: the idea that they were involved in a project where they might watch their friend die. With this project, you knew you’d likely watch someone die; that was a part of what you signed up for. How difficult was that process, watching Kara (as she says) “die by degrees”? Was there a day that was particularly harder than all the rest?Jay: We all pretend like we are not going to die, but we surely are. I’m not suggesting we become fixated on death, but we’ve gone to the extreme opposite to where the subject terrifies us, and we can’t even think about it and definitely don’t choose to talk about it. That’s not healthy either. So what Kara did is she helps us have a natural, candid conversation around suffering and dying, since the viewer gets to watch in real-time as she suffers and dies.
Sofia Lyons: Well, I fall into the “terrified of death” camp, even having panic attacks thinking about it, so this film was especially challenging for me. I grew up in New York City, in the typical Italian family, with extremely negative experiences with funerals. It was traumatizing honestly—the wailing, the hopelessness, the sadness and depression, and complete lack of expectation or understanding of the afterlife from a Christian worldview. Watching Kara brought back many of those memories. But Kara had such an ease about her, such grace, that she met her challenges and difficulties head-on and had hope—not in this life, but in a life after death with Christ. This gave her true joy even while she was suffering and dying. It was remarkable to watch, and it changed the way I view death. I can’t say I’m completely over my fear, but I’m much better.
Asay: Obviously, with a film like this, you’re entering into someone’s most deeply intimate moments—a daunting challenge for both you and the Tippetts family. How do you think Kara and the rest of the family felt about this process? Was it cathartic? Healing? Aggravating? All of the above?
Jay: Definitely all of the above. Kara was all in: She was in her own words, “a desperate over-sharer.” Not in a “look at me” kind of way or “I wanna be famous on social media” way, but just in a natural desire to help others through her story. She knew that her sharing would help others dealing with similar circumstances, and she let the world into her private, even holy moments at the end of her life because of it. I asked her point blank, “What do you think about having a camera in your face?” She said, “Oh I don’t mind it. If someone watches this after I’m gone and knows that I loved them it makes it all worth it.”
Sofia: It was a delicate balance, but Kara was the master of making whoever was right in front of her feel like the most important person in the world. So she managed to do it all, even in her last days.
Asay: I’d imagine you often learn something from the film projects you’re involved in. What did you learn from Kara and her family?
Sofia: I learned about the preciousness of time. We are not guaranteed anything. We hear “Make the most of everyday,” and “Live like you’re dying,” etc. But how do you do that? Kara taught me it’s to enjoy the little things, the “mundane” things—taking your kids to school, driving to the airport with your spouse, smiling at the person in the store, helping your kids with homework, listening to someone who needs a friend even though we are busy, it’s these types of things that matter.
Jay: Kara taught me to be kind. One of Kara’s friends says in the movie, “Whoever was in front of Kara—she loved.” I think about that a lot. Loving people, even the coworker or neighbor I don’t like or a relative who has done me wrong and (in my mind) doesn’t deserve my friendship or love, that is what Kara taught me.
Asay: Are you still in touch with the Tippetts family? How are they doing?
Jay: The family is doing great! Yes we are in touch with them occasionally. Now that Kara is gone, the family has chosen a more private life, understandably.
Asay: Some people may look at this film and say that the subject matter is just too hard. I can’t watch. What would you tell those people? Why should they watch?
Jay: Great question. For some people, it may be too hard. Some people aren’t ready for this type of depth or are in too much pain to go there, so to speak.
Sofia: But we can confidently say that this movie has hope. I watch a ton of movies, just as a fan, and many sad movies leave me feeling empty and depressed. Strangely enough, Kara’s story is inspiring. Even though she dies, she teaches us all how to live. And not just live, but live with joy and peace, no matter what you are going through.
Jay: So yes, the movie is real and incredibly raw, but it’s also funny, hopeful and inspiring. And even if someone doesn’t want to see it, they probably know someone who needs to because this issue is so relevant to so many.
You can order The Long Goodbye here.