“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55)
This has been the summer of final farewells. There have been four deaths of people in my world between Memorial Day and Labor Day. There were others too that impacted people around me – a death in my husband’s family and several deaths at the congregation where I worship. Two deaths were among the early morning water aerobics group with whom I’ve been splashing for almost five years now. One was a dear pastor colleague who could read the Greek translations as easily as the rest of us read the English. And – most difficult and most significant to me personally – my first husband’s mother, who was like a second mother to me. In addition to raising three fine sons, she did much to encourage and educate me in the art of mothering in my early years of raising two of her five grandchildren.
All four died after the age of eighty; two after their ninetieth birthdays. All died more or less painlessly and relatively quickly thanks to palliative care options.
So, I’ve had death on my mind recently. I’ve been reflecting on the lives of these four who have been part of the fabric of my life and now aren’t – at least not in person in this life. I’ve also been thinking about the countless deaths of strangers who were victims of hatred, brutality, terrorism, and sometimes just plain stupidity. I’ve been thinking ahead to my own death and wondering when and what that might be like.
My father’s parents started a funeral home business in Cleveland in the very early 1900’s. In my childhood I spent a week or two each summer with my widowed grandmother at the second floor apartment over the business. My father was born in that apartment. Many of my family members are buried in the community cemetery nearby. Our family name was still known as recently as a few years ago when we buried my father’s sister there.
So you’d think I’d have a handle on this whole death and dying business. I don’t. Oh, I’ve learned that the grief that often accompanies death is a cycle. I know the phases of grief, and I know they keep repeating, though with diminishing power with each passing year. I know that you can start a pretty heated conversation if you approach the topic of assisted death or how to handle end-of-life decisions.
I know some people have it all figured out down to the passages and hymns they want included in their funeral or memorial services. I know others who remain in deep denial that death is inevitable and refuse to talk about it or even write a will. My son-in-law, who works in development for a small Christian college, declares, “Dying without a will is rude.” He’s right.
Geography, schedules, and finances this summer were such that I attended two of the four funerals. I know from saying those final farewells to my grandparents and parents that showing up for a service matters a great deal to the people who have to make the arrangements.
Mostly I think we don’t do a very good job of accepting the reality of death. Our refusal to accept death as the conclusion of this life often compromises the quality our lives. We tend to fight death as though it were an enemy we might conquer if we just put forth enough effort and money. We won’t win. The death rate remains 100% among mortals.
It seems to me all we can conquer is our fear of death and our reluctance to accept death as a natural transition from what has been to what is to become. Each of the four in my life who died this summer leaves a hole in my heart. I think of them often. I give thanks that they were there. My mother-in-law has been a presence in my life for nearly all of my adult years. My Greek-proficient colleague has been there since the earliest months of my move to Texas. The other two have been part of my weekly routine since I joined the Y in the fall of 2011.
I have nothing profound to say about their deaths. It just seemed appropriate to note that they were here. They lived good, productive lives. They loved their families. They did much good for many people in the way they lived. Their presence has made a difference in my life and I know in the lives of many, many others.
Now they know what comes next. I’m free to speculate, but I won’t in this space. I merely wanted to acknowledge there were four lives that mattered to me and now those people have made the final transition from life to death.
We do well to acknowledge those transitions when they take place. They are as important as they are final.