This post is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog on the topic of Death, Loss, Pain and Grief, July 14-30, 2013. Check out our page on MennoNerds.com <link to http://mennonerds.com/tag/mennonerds-loss/> to see all the other posts in this series.
Death. The word harkens a two-edged grin as I type it on this page. A force so violent none can match it. The final battle has been fought and we have lost. Death is no respecter of persons and that’s part of why it has an eerie familiarity to me. If we’re talking about fairness, death is not fair. It takes everyone regardless of their age. It has even taken the lives of people who had so much more to give. It has claimed people by accidents, illnesses, and even a widespread endemic of suicide. It has come like a thief in the night – at times when people have least expected it. A young man who had so much more life to live struck down by its fatal toll. It has also come like an expected friend – a relief to someone who has long fought a hard struggle against cancer or AIDS and now has found their eternal home.
Death to me has always been close at hand and yet so far. In my teen years I felt that I was invincible. At the top of my game, doing all the things I wanted to do, and in excellent physical condition. I was running 6k a day for a while, on some health food kick, and socializing with my friends. It seemed that none of us would succumb to the inevitable hand that would one day lead us away from this world. All of this stopped, though, when my friend Colin passed away. Colin was just entering grade 10 and we had come back from a mission’s trip to downtown Toronto when he died instantly in an ATV crash. I was in shock. I had already been to funerals before, but they were all for people much older than even my grandparents. It had not occurred to me that Colin could ever be dead. For weeks guilt riddled my entire body and racked my mind as I thought back to our conversations and our time together. Colin had not only been a friend, but also a junior karate instructor (even teaching me moves far more advanced than I should have known at the time), attended church youth group and Sunday school with me, and played baseball with me. He had an infectious laugh, so much potential, and was truly a caring and spirited person. His death took all of us by surprise. I didn’t understand why God had taken him and not me. For days I kept having dreams that he was still alive, conversing with us. That was the first time I realized how real death was.
Over the next few years I had even more encounters with death. My good friend, J.P. also passed away. He was in his late 90s and was a faithful church attender. He was so encouraging every time I did anything at church (whether that be preach, worship lead, or sing in a group). He always used to say, “That one there’s going to be a pastor, I can already tell.” When I started learning the sound system he always walked to the back of the church to where I was and said, “It’s so great to see a woman doing this.” He was the first person to greet me as soon as I walked in and the last person to say, “see you next week” with the biggest smile you could ever imagine. When JP died I faced a strange feeling – one of grief. I was obviously grieved over my friend Colin, but tears have a strange way of rarely making it to my face. In fact, for years it bothered me that I couldn’t cry if I was sad, but if I was angry the hot tears wouldn’t stop. At JP’s funeral I cried. And this bothered me. Not because JP was not deserving of my tears – he was an incredible man with a huge heart and a big faith – in fact, he used to be a pastor. It bothered me because I had not cried at my Oma’s (grandmother’s) funeral two years before even though Oma was my hero and the family member I related the closest with. I felt like a horrible person – how could I cry at the funeral of a man I hardly even knew (but who was always there Sunday after Sunday) but not at my Oma’s funeral – the woman I knew the most. Death has a strange way of playing on your emotions. I have learned that whether in death or life there is no shame to any emotion you might face because emotions are what make you alive. I have also learned that I grieved for my Oma, for JP, and for Colin in different ways. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.
Even though death has never been a topic of comfort or hope to me and it is one I try to avoid, I have learned that it is also a holy time. A nurse in my small group described it as a way of “birthing into a new dimension” – as a type of spiritual midwifery. For those of you who aren’t aware, midwifery has long been a passion of mine and I have spent years studying books related to this topic. Unfortunately, as of now, I have never done official schooling for this, but hopefully one day I can. When I think about death, I definitely do think that there is a type of coaching and birthing attached to it. There are so many lessons one can learn by being with the dying, by holding their hand, by actually being there when they move from this world to the next.
During my short time volunteering at a hospice, I have sensed a certain feeling of normalcy as people go through the day visiting the dying. Death is not feared, it is embraced. In my interview I told the director that the Jews have a way of viewing death which I have adopted as my own: to live is a miracle, and to die is also a miracle. I sensed a certain feeling of hospitality attached to being at a bedside or at the hospital – the person is letting us in to their most vulnerable time. They are truly allowing us to experience a time of anxiety and tension for them. I have sensed this again and again as I have volunteered at nursing homes and in other capacities where death is not seen as a threat, but seen as a natural progression to the next stage. I’m also reminded of the phrase in one of the Touched by An Angel T.V. episodes where Monica (one of the angels) experiences life as a human for only a few minutes and is told that roses are redder, flowers smell sweeter, and the sounds of birds are fuller because we only have this one life to live.
As we go through life we do not have to fear even when we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” because we know our God is with us and He has conquered death by sending His Son to die on the cross for our sins. We do not have to spend each moment questioning what will take place when we leave this world, but we do need to be eternally prepared for what lays ahead. We can do this by trusting in the Word of God and relying on Him.
Job 1:21, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord.”
An Added Note: As I went looking on Google images for a suitable picture for the blog I noticed that the first several pages were full of eerie and creepy pictures that were very dark. The North American culture has such a way of twisting death to be something scary, unfortunate, and feared. It’s not a polite dinner conversation and even people who are well into their 80s wince at it. I have visited many a resident in both the nursing homes I interned at who were terrified of the inevitable and wanted reassurance that they would go to heaven. These were some of the most devout Christian and religious people you will ever meet in your life who have lived in such a way of always putting others first.
I also had the opportunity of meeting many people outside the Christian faith and the white/North American culture during my time in Toronto. Some of the beliefs surrounding death in the Jewish and Aboriginal communities especially (as well as many other religions traditions) are simply beautiful. Additionally, I have learned that some cultures speak openly and frankly about death in such a way that they edify it or at the very least don’t fear it.
During my very recent visit to Italy I had the opportunity of going to the Capuchin Crypt. While there we were able to witness the bones of many friars from days long past. The Friars had a beautiful way of embracing death. They knew that it was inevitable but rather than fear it, they saw their lives as a temporary shadow of the life to come. They embraced death knowing that life was but a transitory phase preparing them for what lay ahead. They saw their bodies as instruments of worship and death as the ultimate act of a doxology to God. I long to learn from these experiences as I come to the place of welcoming death in my own life – not in a morbid sense, but in the sense of holiness.
(For more information on the Capuchin Crypt check out the short article I wrote directly after my visit – http://www.ambs.edu/news-events/2013/06/Visiting-Capuchin-Crypt-then-boarding.cfm)