“God is at the deathbed, tenderly drawing the living soul from the dying body. God is in the grief and suffering of those who are left behind, who catch a glimpse, perhaps for a few fleeing seconds, of what life and death are all about.” (Jennifer Worth)
There are many things which unite us as members of the human race. And surely one of the most profound and mysterious of them all is death. This is one event of which we can be certain. We are all going to die. Yet, despite this common destiny we share, many people have different attitudes towards the prospect of dying.
There are those who try not to think about it. Some may even joke about it while others are able to accept it as the natural transition from this life as we know it to a new life as yet unexplored.
Yet, every day, we experience death in one form or another. It may be the death of dreams, misconceptions, plans for the future, or illusions. The death of hope, courage, or confidence. And then, unexpectedly, life stuns us with the loss of a loved one.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross tells us we shouldn’t be afraid of death. That it is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, she says, our concern must be to live while we’re alive – to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes from living behind a facade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are.
These are brave words but difficult maybe to reconcile with the loss of some-one we love or even when we are facing our own mortality. The death of some-one close to us, some-one with whom we have shared most of our lives must yield some of life’s rawest pain.
To run away from death, to pretend, even for a moment that it doesn’t exist, is sadly a useless deception. There is no place on earth to which we can run. We are all moving through life accompanied by the relentless ticking of a metaphorical clock. We have to accept that death, whenever it comes, unwelcome as it may be, has to be faced honestly and squarely. Yet for those who find no spirituality in life, death can be an uncomfortable reminder of a missing dimension in our lives.
To lose someone we love is an unbelievably strange and lonely experience. Even the knowledge that the person is now at peace is of small consolation initially. The stark reality of it all is nothing will ever be the same again. There will always be that empty place at the table. They won’t be around anymore to talk, laugh, eat or do something silly. They are gone for good. Their presence is now replaced by their absence. We are the ones left to survive, mourn and remember them. Yet, somehow through all the grief, life goes on.
Over the years, I have attended many funerals to celebrate the lives of people I have known well or even not so well. I have been there to offer my support to those who are grieving but of whom I was neither an integral part of their pain and suffering nor that of their loved ones.
However, I have never failed to be deeply moved on hearing the life stories of these departed souls. I have always marvelled when those left behind are able to stand up, despite their grief, to share their memories, feelings, sorrows and joys. I have asked myself so many times – from where does their strength come?
There cannot be too many people around who have not experienced death as an unwelcome thief who comes with no right to take away the one to whom we are still clinging. It was this deep grief which prompted St. Augustine to say: “Weep for the living; don’t weep for the dead.”
As we contemplate the death of someone dear to us, let us not forget that death does not rob us forever. Yes, it does rob us now of that someone we love and need very much. Yes, we can be angry at a God who allows death to rob us. But maybe when the fog of pain lifts, we will recall that Jesus too came and took on the overwhelming burden of death for us so that we may have life.
Hard as it may be to accept to those who are grieving, death has many powerful lessons to teach us. We learn that through death nothing lasts forever and that everything in this life will also pass away. And so, for those of us who believe in God and eternal life, our faith can bring us immense consolation in knowing that one day we shall all be re-united – albeit on the other side of the grave!
I believe that we never lose the people we love, even in death. They remain a very important part of our lives. I believe too that their love for us and our love for them will leave an indelible, unforgettable imprint in our memories. There is a great comfort in knowing that our lives have been enriched by their love, for having loved and been loved. In this way, we know that love transcends even death.
It may sound strange to admit but really, we do not need to grieve for our departed loved ones. As John O’Donohue puts it so beautifully in his book, Anam Cara: “They are now in a place where there is no more shadow, darkness, loneliness, isolation or pain. They are home. They are with God from whom they came. They have returned to the rest of their identity within the great circle of God.”