Today I contemplated death. I found that death is in many ways foreign to me. I have had the good fortune of health throughout my life. I have yet to lose a close family member, though I know many others who have not had such blessing. Of course, grief often accompanies these events no matter one’s age, and while I do not pretend fully to understand the experience of loss, even entertaining the idea leaves me deeply pained. To lose my mother or father, who have been loving foundations of support for me in my best and worst of times, would prove devastating. My younger sister, so full of vibrancy and potential, would be still worse. If I found myself on my deathbed, bereft of all the hopes and dreams I once held dear, what could I say for myself? I do not envy the pain, questions, and sorrow that so many others perhaps younger than I must face at such circumstances. But thinking upon it, my greatest fear is not the pain of loss, but rather a possible apathy. I do not fear the feeling, I fear not feeling. I can think of no worse fate than to arrive at my mother’s deathbed with expert control and a calm demeanor, or my father’s funeral with a logical explanation and a carefully crafted set of sentiments to console the other attendants. I hope when I attend the funeral of a loved one that I am able to cry from my very depth. I want to shed tears. By God, I want to suffer.
We try to avoid the reality of death in the United States. When we are forced to console those who mourn, we tend to feel uncomfortable, wishing that they would not be such an awkward and obstinate presence. We are sidetracked by the endless streams of distraction and entertainment designed apparently to reflect an unending blossoming of life. Culture fools us with the apparitions of everlasting youth. When the early explorers failed to discover the Fountain of Youth, their descendants chose to at least create the illusion. The men and women in advertisements and media rarely grow old, sickly, and ugly in that grander perception; somehow, we are always confronted with decadence and unrealistic beauty (even in scenes and descriptions of dying), and we forget the true ugliness that exists in human mortality. Death naturally confronts us powerfully with the existentialist questions of identity, impermanence, eternity, meaning, and the harrowing question of why. Cheap religious or secular slogans that once satisfied the mind as answers fail to satisfy the soul. What God can answer for such injustice? If He is not just, am I powerless against Him? If He is not real, then where can consolation be found? Are we immortal souls cruelly trapped within mortal frames? In the words of Ivan Karamazov, “It’s not God that I don’t accept…only I most respectfully return him the ticket.” For Ivan, God can give no answer to the injustice of evil, suffering, and death in the world, and all attempts to do so prove futile in the face of the thing. However, if grieving at the death of a loved one betrays any hidden belief, it is that meaning exists for us, or better, that existence has meaning. Life is good, and relationships are beautiful. We bear the intuition that death is an unwelcome and unjust intruder, despite any number of cogent and coherent philosophies available that either explain him or explain him away. Death is cold and often uninspired. His timing and his reasons: apathetic and arbitrary. His only principle is that all men are created equal.
On the other hand, several friends have confided in me that they hope their funerals are events filled with joy and celebration, either because they have been given an opportunity to live a great life, however short, or because of an unyielding conviction in the glory and peace of the afterlife. I do not deny a logic to this, depending on one’s belief, but I think it is in danger of leading too far in the opposite direction. If the first tendency of a questioning sorrow might lead us to despair and ultimate apathy, disconnection and escapism, the second tendency of unabashed joy may lead to the renunciation of suffering and death as an enemy, and eventually the significance of life in this world. Is there truly nothing lost when one leaves this life? Even if you have ascended to eternal glory, is it wrong that I long for your presence and your comfort? What of children who cannot be raised by their parents, or mothers robbed of their infants? Should the sufferer not be suffered? I could not accept a God that made me to love so powerfully and yet who would deny me the right to mourn. One must certainly look to God in such confusion and see the injustice and the outrage. Yet God Himself could not bear the burden of this virtue. Did not Christ also weep at the death of Lazarus, though he already knew he would be raised by His hands? Even as the hands and feet of Christ were pierced, did not a sword pierce Mary’s soul? If there is joy, it must be sublime in the midst of suffering, not in contention with it.
I think no matter one’s religious background, people return to reciting their distant dogmas to provide comfort to those they know who have experienced loss. For many, the expectation to comfort proves more foreign and difficult than does even suffering itself. But here is the mistake. Words are not an answer; not explanations anyway. No movement of the rational mind can solely answer the question of the soul. Here we distinctly discover against all our rationalist tendencies that mere understanding does not bring peace. At its worst, it brings withdrawal and the hardness of solitude. There is a recognition that one must eventually endure through the darkness of suffering. But both a logical apathy and a logical joyfulness deny the right to suffer, and they declare the wounds as illegitimate. The scars left upon us by those we love may be painful, but they are the testament and indents of those who have left us, their direct legacy in this world. I do not think any joy or apathetic acceptance should be the answering sensations to the anguish of loss, but rather a desperate hope. But do not attempt to justify such hope, for to do so would be to ruin it. One must be the hope. The deepest consolation comes not from words, or even ideas, but from presence and love. Presence pulls one out from the loneliness and buried darkness, and love renews the heart, slowly but intently. Indeed, in the United States we have forgotten this lesson. We have shunned suffering, and thus we have forgotten how to suffer. No, we have forgotten even longsuffering.
Death must remind us that not all tears are evil. We must not flee from the grief of death. Christ did not give any well-reasoned answer to console us. Rather He was the answer. Words were incapable of saving us, so God sent the Word Himself. Suffering and death may be unjust, but then God also suffered and died and bore the epitome of this injustice. And His death and suffering give hope; His wounds and imprint survive in the beauty and ugliness of His followers on earth that still bear His name as the Body of Christ. Through them, His love and presence remain tangible however imperfectly until His return. It is through this tension of sorrow and hope that joy and peace may be attained, not as an alternative perspective, but rather as a gift gained through the grappling of time and love. Such an answer may be a mystery, but do not declare it so, except maybe in a whisper. Do not explain the mystery, though perhaps you believe it can be done. Words are only imperfect attempts at grasping for the hidden and mystical reality around us, and in all their power, words can shatter the truth by declaring it. When others so poignantly endure the evils of this world, let us not meet them with deficient platitudes. Let us not give Death such dignity while forgoing the dignity of man. Let us be as Christ and suffer with them.