My Response to Death

“One of the profoundest features of the Christian and Jewish way of being-in-the-world and being-in-history is remembering. . . We are to hold the past in remembrance and not let it slide away. For in history we find God.” (Nicholas Wolsterstorff, “Lament for a Son”)

When I was very young, I was what most people would call a “mama’s boy.” I have very fond memories going to elementary school with my mom (she volunteered a lot in my school), and returning home during the day to have lunch with her (we lived only a few blocks away). I remember hanging out with her as she prepared meals, getting haircuts from her, playing cribbage, delivering newspapers around town, and cuddling with her while we watched movies. My friends thought she was a “cool” mom, and she took pride in “mothering” them in one way or another.

When I was 11 or 12, I remember something being wrong. It was Christmas Eve and our family went on a sudden trip to a Doctor’s office in another town. Later, I found out that my mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I didn’t really know what that meant, but eventually, it led her to lose all her hair and a lot of her strength. She didn’t want anyone to feel pity for her, and she didn’t want me to see her in her weakness, so she tried to keep this to herself. When I was 14, she died.

I remember the feeling of darkness and isolation on the day of the funeral. The parish priest was a close friend and he tried to lighten the mood during his sermon, but mostly, I felt sad and confused. I cried during the sermon and at the time of burial. Later, I remember delivering newspapers one day without my mom and it suddenly came to me how much I missed her, and I cried. People later said that they wondered about why I didn’t express more emotion, which made me feel like I wasn’t coping in the “right way” and probably made me feel even more awkward about it all. I was just trying to get through it and understand. I didn’t feel the need to share.

Coping with Loss

I suppose I’ve always struggled with being vulnerable, within myself and particularly around others. Maybe because of some of the feedback I received, I long have wondered whether I coped with my mom’s death in an unhealthy manner, maybe helping to explain some of the struggles I’ve had in my adult life.

These concerns made me all the more sensitive to my response to my dad’s death last year. For various reasons, this death was less traumatic to me (I was older, he was older, and it wasn’t a surprise). Still, my dad’s death did trigger a similar set of struggles and questions in me. Something that I am learning is that people respond to death differently, and that this is okay.

Soon after the passing of my dad, a friend passed along an article written by Kelly Wilson that has come to be very important to me. In many ways, the insights in the article have provided a structure for me to think about how to cope with loss. In particular, I resonate with Wilson when he writes:

“I find myself wondering about people reading this right now. Do you know about things fallen? About things irrevocably lost? I wonder if you would be willing to stop a moment to acknowledge that loss, to know its face when you see it. If you could grow something new and beautiful from that loss, that could honor what has fallen, what might that be?”

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I am working to better acknowledge my true feelings about difficult life experiences such as the death of my mom and dad. My tendency is to think, instead of to feel, and to look toward the future, instead of the past. This is not all bad, I believe, and I will engage in this kind of response below, in fact. However, I also have come to appreciate the wisdom of C. S. Lewis’s reflection about his response to his wife’s death, in his book, “A Grief Observed:”

“Do I hope that if feeling disguises itself as thought I shall feel less? Aren’t all these notes the senseless writhings of a man who won’t accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it? Who still thinks there is some device (if only he could find it) which will make pain not to be pain?”

It also seems important for me to remember and honor my mom and dad, to “grow something new and beautiful” in the space of my loss. It has been difficult for me to know how to adequately do so, but I am trying. I think this post is one attempt, and there are others that I feel good about as well, such as remembering my mom and dad as I do things I would have done with them, including playing cribbage on the same cribbage board we played on when I was young and going out for a Lenten fish fry with my brother and my family. I am learning the sacredness of the gravesite, a place “where an important part of our lives lies buried,” as William Kent Krueger writes in “Ordinary Grace,” and I hope to acknowledge this more often in the years ahead.

Responding to Mystery

Probably the most difficult part about death for me personally has been how unknowable it is. There are different elements to this unknowability. Frederick Bauerschmidt writes in his book “Why the Mystics Matter Now” that:

“Perhaps it is because death involves a massive ‘undoing’ of the self. Death involves a ‘disspiriting’ and decomposition of the body in which the fundamental structures of our lives as living beings break down. . . The unthinkableness of death indicates [that] in some sense death remains profoundly unnatural to us. . . Perhaps death is unthinkable because it would force us to think of ourselves as ultimately, finally, completely without control.”

Maybe because of these difficulties, the responses to death that most have resonated with me acknowledge its mysteries. After all, we cannot know death until we have experienced it for ourselves. For example, I love what Parker Palmer writes in this meditation:

“What I know for sure is this: We come from mystery and we return to mystery. I arrived here with no bad memories of wherever I’d come from, so I have no good reason to fear the place to which I’ll return.”

In some ways, this is comforting to me because it seems so indisputable. We all have this experience of coming from the unknown, and it is helpful for me to think that, in some way or other, it is to this same unknown to which we will return. C. S. Lewis similarly writes about his wife’s realization, as she was dying, that she was going “alone into the Alone.” I ask myself something similar when I ponder whether I can trust the unknown and the Unknowable. One of the pressing questions on my heart about all of this, in other words, is whether Mystery is trustworthy. In the end, I believe that it is.

In fact, much of this points to a deep longing I have for Something into which I can place my trust and hope, Something that transcends life and overcomes death. Reflecting on the life and thought of Thomas Merton, Bauerschmidt addresses this in the following way:

“When we look in faith and hope, we can see something else, something no less dark, but something that can be trusted. We see the “you” to whom Merton addresses his prayer, the God to whom he confesses his lostness. This is not a god that lifts me out of our world and gives me an all-seeing view of the journey ahead. Rather God, for Merton, is the one whom I trust while still in darkness. God is the one who is ‘ever with me,’ not only in the darkness, but as the darkness, for what ultimately makes my life incomprehensible to me is that, at its root, it is a gift given by the God that no human mind can grasp. God is dark to me because I cannot imagine one who would ‘never leave me to face my perils alone.’. . . It is not the shadowy darkness of death, the darkness of light blocked, but the darkness of a light so vast that we are blinded, and so must trust that light to lead us on the path.”

Making Life Meaningful

Much of the above suggests that part of what makes death important is in how it clarifies life. This is demonstrated in one of my favorite movie clips of all time, from the movie, “Braveheart:”

Rabbi Harold Kushner makes a similar case in his book, “When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough,” arguing that many of our difficulties with death actually aren’t as much about death as about life. That is, we often are afraid of death because we are uncertain about what to do to make our lives meaningful. He writes:

“What are the things you absolutely must have and do so that you can feel that you have lived your life and not wasted it?”

This line of questions completely resonates with me. Much of my life is oriented around trying to discern what constitutes my mission in life, what I want to happen next in my life, and what I am called to do and be. Although I often don’t know the answers to these questions at any given time, orienting my life around them as much as I do has been tremendously helpful over the years, as answers do eventually “bubble up” to guide me. I don’t think I would have thought as seriously about them if I hadn’t had the experience of my mom’s death, in particular, when I was fairly young. In other words, death has taught me to “number my days,” as Psalm 90 encourages.

One particular way in which I have found meaning through death is to recognize the importance of acknowledging the suffering of others, particularly when their loved ones die. When my wife and I have suffered over the years, it has been the surprising gestures of kindness, often from people from which we would have never expected to receive anything, that have provided us with the glimpses of grace that have really helped to sustain us with goodness. When I am in doubt about whether or not to acknowledge someone’s suffering, this has taught me to error on the side of “showing up” in a meaningful and appropriate way.

Finally, in the grand scheme of everything, death has put life into a bigger perspective for me. As Parker Palmer continues in the reflection I mentioned above, “standing closer to the reality of death awakens my awe at the gift of life.”

In light of death, it is particularly important for me to be thankful for every day that I have, every amount of health that I possess, every person who graces my life. This is because any one of these can be lost at a moment’s notice. Not everyone experiences the blessings that I do, and the only appropriate response really is thanks. The life that all of us have truly is a gift, and I believe we all are called to “pass this forward” by bringing gifts of generosity to others. In this, death truly is one of the best teachers for how to live life well now.

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