One year ago, I stood next to the bed of my brother-in-law, and watched him die.
Daniel was only thirty: funny, young, and handsome. He was a loving husband to my youngest sister, who is perhaps the kindest and strongest person I know. They were still newlyweds.
This death, and the terrible decline that preceded it, are the worst things I have ever witnessed. ALS is insidious. And despite endless ice buckets dumped on countless heads, no cure exists.
Watching Daniel die changed me. While I have no claim to the kind of grief borne by my sister and by his more immediate family, Daniel’s passing stole some measure of my innocence.
In movies, death is valorized and sanitized, but there is one thing the films get wrong: death’s color. On screen, the deceased look like they are merely sleeping. But Daniel did not look like that. While he died painlessly, I could not join others in kissing his face, holding his hands, or stroking his hair.
I just wanted to get out of there—to flee the room, avert my gaze, cover up his body—anything to escape the pallor that had replaced his former complexion. The image scarred me. I still see it.
As the theologian John Zizioulas writes:
“There is no greater contradiction than a dying being” (Being as Communion).
Death is an affront, or as Paul writes, an “enemy” (1 Cor. 15.26). It is an intruder in God’s good creation.
A GRADUATION FALSEHOOD
That is why I wriggled uncomfortably in my chair last month as I heard a graduation speaker (and pastor) affirm the words of the late Steve Jobs:
“Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”
This may sound nice at first, but when applied to actual people–a son or daughter, a spouse or friend–it is insulting and absurd.
“Skubalon,” as Paul would say (Php. 3.8). Excrement.
It is wrong because it treats human beings like excess inventory at a used car lot: Act now! – older models must go!
Death is not Life’s best creation, and while Jobs said it, he did not actually believe it. If he had, he would not have fought so furiously (and valiantly) to fend off this great “invention.”
For those who mourn—and there are many—such platitudes don’t wash against the image of a departed loved one.
The bony hand of death cannot be manicured, bejeweled, and made pretty. It is always ugly, always cold, always an offense. True, we are often glad to know that a loved one is no longer suffering, and that they are “with Jesus.” But it is not death we celebrate; it is the cessation of pain, and their presence with God.
Death remains an enemy combatant.
A DOUBLE CRUELTY
And then there are those left behind. For the bereaved, a double cruelty of death is that the wider world simply continues on as if nothing much has changed. A continent has been wiped off the map, and the cartographers have scarcely noticed.
“It’s as if they are erasing him,” my sister said once to me, amid the flood of paperwork to change her marital status, her mortgage listing, her tax information. But the people sending medical bills remembered.
This “double cruelty” is poignantly depicted in Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, All the Light we Cannot See. In a scene set in World War II, a young French girl stands in the empty room of a departed loved one:
[It] smells of peppermint, candle wax, six decades of loyalty. […] German sailors sing a drunken song in the street, and a house spider over the stove spins a new web every night, and to [her] this is a double cruelty: that everything else keeps living, that the spinning earth does not pause for even an instant in its trip around the sun.
Here, to quote a further line, God can seem like
“only a white cold eye, a quarter-moon, poised above the smoke, blinking, blinking, blinking, as [one] is gradually pounded into dust.”
BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO MOURN
The question then is this: Is there an alternative to these two dead ends? First, the delusional attempt to say that death is “life’s best invention.” And second, the lonely despair that finds no comfort.
Perhaps one alternative is a certain kind of grief.
As Paul said, “we do not grieve like those who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4.13). But we do grieve. And that is for the best.
As Nicholas Wolterstorff states in a tribute to a son who died:
“Grief is existential testimony to the worth of the one loved. That worth abides” (Lament for a Son).
Or as Tennyson writes:
“Let love clasp Grief lest both be drowned” (In Memoriam A.H.H.).
Such words ring truer than false attempts to whitewash death as “Life’s best invention.”
DEATH BE NOT PROUD
Yet more is required to fend off despair.
We need not merely to grieve honestly, we need hope that death is not the end—that the “brief candle,” as Shakespeare called it, shall reignite and “run like sparks through the stubble” (Wis. 3.7).
Death is cocky after years of sway. Understandably.
Yet in the empty tomb of Jesus, there is a hint that “the blood-dimmed tide” (Yeats) has already turned, almost imperceptibly.
“Death, be not proud,” as Dunne wrote, “though some have called thee.”
“One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”
THE EMPTY TOMB
In the months after Daniel’s death, I had a chance to visit Israel with my sister (his widow) and my father. Daniel had always wanted to go. We stood together in the empty garden tomb at Gordon’s Calvary, and cried, and smiled.
Inside, a simple wooden sign reads: “He is not here – he is risen.”
And behind those words, I heard those of Francis Spufford:
“More can be mended than you know.”
For those who mourn as Christians, that hope provides a balance to the bitterness of death. Some sweet wine mixed with the gall. It does not take away the sting of death, but it allows us to walk on, limping. And that limp, like Jacob’s (Gen. 32), is evidence that we have been touched by someone real, someone good, someone eternal.
So if you grieve today, hear these final words of Kate Braestrup:
“Walk fearlessly into the house of mourning; for grief is just Love squaring up to its oldest enemy. And after all these mortal human years, Love is up to the challenge.”
~In loving memory of Daniel Berg.