They come out of nowhere; even when you expect them, they’re unexpected. Every now and again, our regular lives are disrupted, and we’re reminded of the existence of death. If we’re lucky, these events are infrequent. We can move past them and get back to normal. If we’re unlucky, they happen more often.
I had several in a row a few years ago; most for people I didn’t know personally all that well, but one for my grandmother, a person I loved very much. That was when it struck me – really struck me – that thinking about “getting back to normal life” is a bit wrong.
Death is normal. Or, put another way: “Normal” includes death.
You hear it all the time: “death is part of life.” We’re all going to die someday. But for our own sanity we have to take this information and encapsulate it, file it away in a mental folder labeled, “Do not read.” If I let myself dwell on it, I get really depressed, really fast. If I think about the truth – that I’m going to die, that my children are going to die, that my wife and my mother and everyone I’ve ever known is going to die – it’s overwhelming. It can shut me down. I know this, because I’ve opened that folder and looked inside, and felt its contents seize me. I’m an atheist, but at times like those I envy people who believe in a defined afterlife, and I can understand why they accept this belief. It helps fight the fear of death like few rational things can; but it’s not for me.
It is a beautiful feature of the cycle of life that, if everything goes according to the default, I won’t see my children die, and my mother won’t see me. Usually, people see their parents go first. It makes it easier to set aside the notion of one’s own death. You can feel like you’ve been passed a torch, like it’s up to you now, and you’re going to soldier on. And that may be true to some extent, but an even deeper truth is that we’re all on a conveyor belt. There is no getting off it. Seeing a grandparent die feels natural, to some extent, but seeing a parent die can leave you shaking. That conveyor belt is moving. You’ve watched two generations go over its edge, and now, you can see the edge yourself.
I went to a funeral this morning for the father of some dear, long-time friends of mine. It was a Catholic service. I sat in the back and stayed quiet; I wasn’t there for solace in the service, but to be seen by my friends – to let them know I had come. I have a lot of old issues with churches of all stripes, but for the first time in years I was able to remain for an entire service without feeling guilty about not participating, ashamed that I wasn’t a believer, or desperate to leave. I was there for my friends. I didn’t believe in a lot of the message that was spoken, but I was still able to recognize wisdom when I heard it.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:
A time to be born, and a time to die,
A time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
Even as an atheist at a Catholic service, I was able to draw peace from this verse. It is beautiful, and it is true. I hope my friends were able to draw some peace from something they heard, too; some belief or insight that will help them cope with the pain of their parents’ loss and the fear of that conveyor belt. I wanted to provide that for them, but I couldn’t. I saw them at the wake last night, and at the funeral today, but there was nothing I could say or do to ease their pain, short of just being there.
And, maybe, saying this.
Jason and Jim and Jenn: Life is short, and scary, and sometimes sad. But mine is better for having you in it, and I’m so glad you are.