I, like many, know too well what death and dying entail. I lost a brother at the age of thirty-nine and my mom at the age of sixty-two, both before I reached my thirties.
Upon occasion, we have the privilege and honor to sit with the dying, to accompany death as she visits and extinguishes the flame of life afore us. One may say that healthcare workers, emergency responders, and ministers more often have this privilege of greeting the unwelcomed guest, though with welcoming disdain. They have our respect as they sit at the feet of those whose steps are nearing the end of their journeys among us.
It’s ironic that scientists hypothesize that dreams, especially night terrors, prepare us for the seemingly improbable scenarios we could face at any time. Nothing can adequately prepare the psyche for the sudden loss of a loved one. Yet, when one walks through “the valley of the shadow of death” one feels dazed, as if realistically living a bad dream that has no ending, seemingly eternal as eternal life, itself.
I am struck by one of the Gospel readings prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer for the service of burial, from John 14, and by the boldness of the quiet disciple, Thomas, who seldom uttered a word. Here, he questions, “Lord,… how can we know the way?” Christ’s reply is so profound, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.”
Is it ironic that it is through death which is experienced within this transient world that we have access to the eternal, to our Father’s abodes that are prepared for us?
I question this situational irony because death and dying are so overwhelming for loved ones remaining. In our faith and our traditions, though it is so unwelcoming, it is also promissory of something so eternally comforting.
Christ, himself, experienced this death. He also experienced both the death of a friend and possibly that of his earthly father. He knew of this situational irony first hand, still he spoke seemingly harshly about those grieving when saying, “Let the dead bury the dead.”
Death is harsh, and in tending to our loved ones at their passing we remember that we are all but flesh, even as good as dead, ourselves, and that our time here within this transient, temporal world is fleeting.
We must remember this. In Christ, though we are still mortal flesh, we have passed from death to life. Our ending here may be clear, as clear as Christ’s prophetic death, even as sorrowful, as disdaining, as ugly, and as unsettling.
This is what makes the mortal part of our living okay. It is vital to be able to differentiate among things we can control and what is beyond our control or understanding. It is essential to our psyche, while still grieving, to recall our hope in the Resurrection, the three-part mystery of our faith, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”
We are here among the grieving, for our friends, and yes, it is as if the dead are burying the dead. We often do not know what to do or say. We question whether to show emotions or to “be of good courage,” ourselves, and this is okay.
Imperfectly mortal, we hold our friends close to our hearts in human embrace and exemplify the perfect bond of love being made all the more perfect and complete through our own love during these most difficult of times.
Grief strikes with sullen, heart wrenching despair as a mad artist’s rendering of pure emotion spattered over the canvas of life, itself.
The Word of Life in human flesh said it best. “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” His last words become our own when we, too, feel forsaken by our loved ones in their passing, when we, like Thomas, have questions which seemingly have no right answers.
As Christians, our hope is in the Resurrection and the Life.
We long to comfort one another and to be comforted in our frailty as well as within moments of purest joy. During these times, and during the sacred time between the two, life is all the more bearable, all the more worth living with the good company of our human family, of which Christ is both the pinnacle and foundational cornerstone.
Indeed, Christ is the way, and the truth, and the life, through whom we come to our heavenly Father in our passing and through whom we perfectly know our heavenly Father in our mutual embracement of the living.
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases,
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
—Isaiah 53:4, NRSV