I’ve seen a lot of death. Not just because my husband has a full-time pastoral calling, but also because my parents never shielded me from the reality of death. Many parents today hesitate to take their children to funerals because, “they wouldn’t understand,” and that is true, but only to an extent. As a parent, it is my duty (privilege?) to explain the mystery of death.
At the viewing of my grandfather many years ago with my own son…
“Yes, you may touch the cheek of Poppy. Gently, now.”
“Why does he feel weird? Wait! I think I saw him breathe!”
“No, baby, it’s your eyes playing tricks on you.”
A few weeks following…
“Look, it’s heaven!”
Trying to decipher small boy’s exclamation.
Pointing to the cemetery.
“Over there! You said that’s where Poppy was going, and we took him there, so that must be heaven.”
Insert awkward explanation to a literal-thinking three-year-old about the vague timeline between resting and eternal destination.
Over the next couple of years…
“No, you may not touch the cheek of ‘insert-random-deceased’s- name.’”
“Can I ask ‘grieving-relative’ if I can touch him/her?”
“No, this is not an appropriate time for that.”
Unfortunately, my son didn’t always ask me before he asked the grieving loved one. Grace was always extended and always resolved with a hearty chuckle.
He had such a fascination with death and a deeply sympathetic heart for the grieving at such a young age, that I wouldn’t have been surprised had he grown up to be a funeral director. It still wouldn’t surprise me.
It is this exposure to death and the traditional ceremonies that follow that calms the fear of the unknown. In fact, in most cases, I welcome the re-orientation that a funeral brings to me. There is a shift of perspective, a reminder that my priorities again need to be realigned. It makes me very aware that sympathy can only reach so far, and it is only empathy that can touch a heart. I have never lost an immediate family member or close friend, so I am always conscious of my lack of understanding of the intensity of pain those losses bring under normal circumstances.
Last month, my family suffered a loss and a near-loss that awakened me—not just to the familiarity of death, but also to the foreignness of life.
Foreign? How could something so natural, so normal, be characterized as foreign?
Unless you have seen over the edge of life’s precipice, it is difficult to grasp the magnitude of life itself. When you sense the fingers of death brush over your shoulder and realize that it has rested its hand on one close to you, life holds a value not recognized before – a value prompting gratitude that emanates out of the heart.
How then, shall life be lived? How do we step back from our story as a stranger and embrace our lives as our own?
Life, as it should be lived, is far more than a bucket list, more than another experience to cross off.
Life is being aware.
It is absorbing the sights and sounds around you. Feeling the peace as well as the pain. Life is allowing God to overflow you until he spills out on everyone around you. It is speaking for those who have no voice, standing for those beaten down. It is taking every opportunity to reach out a hand to someone in need. Life is treating your marriage as sacred, treasuring your children as a gift. Life pauses to hear context rather than anger; it speaks a gentle word instead of driving the blade deep.
Life begs to be viewed through new eyes.
Do you make an effort to appreciate gestures of kindness, even the smallest ones? Do you have the ability to recognize when someone is having a rough day? Can you sense a need without it being spoken? Can you say you’ve made others’ lives better as you walk out of the room?
Life is being aware. All in.
I feel it fading, this reality of life that always comes when I am faced with death. Aliveness lasts for two or three weeks. I write notes of appreciation to those who have contributed to my life. I send “thinking of you” texts. Suppers actually have love sprinkled into them rather than impatience and frustration. I’m on top of making sure everyone has clean clothes.
Then the mundane sets in. Routine, pressures, and conflict pull my focus away and I find myself distracting my mind with Tsum Tsum rather than reorienting myself with God’s gift of simply being alive.
Last year, one of my New Year’s resolutions was to live every day as if it were New Year’s Day—fresh, hopeful, and anticipating a bright future.
I lasted until about April.
This year, within the first two weeks of 2018, my mother-in-law passed away, and a friend faced a life-threatening medical emergency with a poor prognosis. Both were unexpected. One was released from life and one was given a new lease on life.
Death breathed on my cheek and with a whisper, reminded me to live alive.
“Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.” -2 Corinthians 3:5 (NASB)