When Death Comes

Damn death. Aretha is gone. Anthony Bourdain is gone. Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon is gone. Rev.Dr. James Cone is gone. My mother and father and sister are gone. Someone’s child or children are gone, or someone’s husband or wife or grandmother or brother or best friend …is gone.

Death be damned as well as the diseases and situations that cause death. That sentiment is known and adhered to by many. But it’s not healthy.

We all know that death is a part of life, just as failure is a necessary component of success, but when death comes it is woefully unconcerned with how we will feel as our loved one is snatched from us.

It is little wonder that the poet John Donne wrote his classic “Death Be Not Proud,” known as Holy Sonnet 10. He no doubt had borne his share of sorrow, thanks to the intrusion of Death in his daily life. His poem argues against the power of Death, which apparently thinks more highly of itself than Donne thinks it should. He writes:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,

Rest of their bones and souls’s delivery.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war and sickness dwell,

And poppy’or charms can make us sleep as well

And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou, then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

And so Donne attempts to take the sting out of death by relying on the Christian belief in eternal life. Death does not win.

But regardless of one’s religious beliefs and the capacity to visualize the loved one who has died being in heaven, the fact of the matter is that when Death comes, we who are left behind are frazzled. The hole left in our lives when a loved one – someone in our family, a close friend, or a public figure who has impacted us- is immense. And the hole gets deeper as time goes on, allowing the side effects of death – loneliness, anger, confusion, anguish – to get worse before we get the capacity to cope without falling apart.

In the last few months, people who I have known personally have died, and a couple of public figures to whom I had an attachment …” went to be with the Lord,” as we say in the Black Church. Today the country and the world are coping with the death of Aretha Franklin, an immensely talented woman who gave the world beautiful music for decades. Last week, for me, it was a female scholar and theologian and a couple of months before her it was a male theologian and scholar whose work has impacted the lives of “the least of these” since the 1970s. Before then it was CNN personality Anthony Bourdain and for some, the death of Charlotte Rae knocked the air out of their lungs.

Those are recent deaths, but the gaping hole comes anytime someone to whom we are close is taken by Death from beyond our reach. Some people find themselves trapped by the pain caused by death for literally years. We “grow accustomed” to having people around; we get used to their presence, their ways, their voices, their smiles, and even the things, in the cases of personal loss, the habits of theirs that we found irritating.

“The hole” is like a giant pot which holds our memories, sights, sounds, words and laughter of the ones who have gone, and while our grief is raw ,we are not comforted. Death  does not have power over the one who has passed on, but Death wreaks havoc in ourpersonal spaces. It has no regard for our feelings; it remains an uninvited guest in our spirits until it is ready to leave.

As a pastor, I have stood beside anguished family members as they have watched their loved one transition from the temporal to the spiritual realm. I have told them to continue to talk to their loved one as he or she slips further and further away from them toward a spirit-life to which we have not yet been called. I have told them to talk to them (the sense of hearing is supposedly the last of our senses to go), and to touch them, and to tell them how much they are loved. It will make it easier for the one who is dying to let go, I have shared, if they have the feeling that those who are being left behind will be all right.

We work hard to do that, but we frequently do not succeed. We are not all right when Death swoops into our spaces. We struggle to hold onto our loved one for as long as we can because the thought of the emptiness that will be ours is unbearable to think about. Death’s main character- Grief – is like a pesky fly, but one which not only flies and buzzes in our ears, but which bites as well.  Memories catch us unaware; we grow worried if, after death, we find that we cannot visualize the face of the one who has gone on. We can be “all right” one second and then pass a place which was a favorite for ourselves and the one that passed, or we can hear someone talking whose voice is eerily like the one of our deceased loved one, and we go careening down into that hole, again and again and again.

I write this today because someone knows exactly what I am talking about. I write it because a fair number of people are deeply sad because of the death of Aretha Franklin. I write it because someone lost his or her mother or father, and I write it because parents who have lost children are groping to find sunshine in days which always seem overcast because their child or children are gone.

I write this because a whole lot of people are in holes of sadness caused by the death of someone important to them. I know about those holes; my mother, father and sister died from cancer. The holes left by their passing are now not as deep as they once were, but they are still there.

Death has no power over the one who has gone; that’s what the religion of many says, but death wields its power over us who are left behind with abandon. Death does not care if our hearts feel like they will burst from the pain. Death gets an easy chair and plops it right in the middle of our grieving spirits.

Death loses its sting after a while, but it leaves permanent scars. There is no way around it. Some of us are still deeply pained by someone we lost years ago. Death invades our peace and shatters the normalcy of life we have known.

Death is a part of life. The prayers we utter should not be for those who have passed on; as Donne says, “one short sleep past, we wake eternally.” For the one who has passed, there is peace, but for those of us left behind, Death reminds us that it has taken up residence in places to which it had not been invited…and as we protest and writhe with pain, Death ignores us.

We are blessed to be able to “connect” with our lost loved ones via pictures and videos and even old voicemails. In so doing, we neutralize some of the sting of Death’s bite into our souls.

But Death tempts us to fall into despair and to stay there.  To our credit, we fight back. The power of death’s grip is lessened, and we go on, limping and bruised but going on nonetheless, able to give thanks for the time we had with the one who has gone on. That thanksgiving is the antidote to the pain caused by the raw pain of Death, and when we get to that point, we at least neutralize Death’s presence and reality.

We force a tie in a battle we never wanted to fight. It is then that we can smile, even as we continue to sometimes find ourselves in tears, because the power of remembering the one who has passed is greater than the lure of Death’s helpers for us to stay enmeshed in raw sorrow.

We learn, in the words of the hymn ‘Come Ye Disconsolate” that “earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal,” and when we internalize that truth, Death is relegated to the closet of “life experiences” that are a part of the lives of all of us.

A candid observation …

Best Friends, Gone

Three weeks ago, I did the funeral for my best friend. She had been ill for a while; she had checked out of life twice in the past three years and had been revived.  Though she had been sick, I thought she’d beat this last bout of a stubborn heart, wanting to give up and give out. She did not beat it this time, and Death claimed her.

I was angry about it. Anger is a part of grief that we don’t talk about much. It’s almost as though it’s a sin to be angry at someone who died. Their death was enough; their death is a ticket to grieve, but in an acceptable way. Sadness. Tears. A feeling of loss…

I felt all of that, but in addition, I felt anger. The anger started the moment I got to her hospital room literally a minute after she died. I hit my leg in anger and stomped my foot. She couldn’t be gone, I thought. But of course, she was. I stood next to her lifeless body, still warm, talking to her because I was sure she could still hear. I told her I was going to miss her, that I was missing her already.

I didn’t tell her I was angry that she had left me. Yes, she had left others, too, but honestly, all I could deal with at that moment was my reality. As a clergy person, you’re supposed to know how to handle death, and you’re supposed to handle your own emotions. I get that and I do that pretty well. But for a moment, before the “pastor” thing kicked in, I was just her best friend, left behind, and I was mad.

That anger was enough, but then, yesterday, I had to put my beloved dog down. She was 17 years old and could not walk, could not get up or stay up after being hoisted. She was still clear-minded and still had the amazing sparkle in her eyes that she’d always had, but she could not stand up, get up, or stay up. She was incontinent. She ate, but had gotten to the point where she had to eat while lying down, and when she was lying down, she twisted her body into a shape which I called “the question mark.”

I watched her and ached for her and for me. She was a proud, beautiful dog, a Siberian Husky. All her life she had been spirited and stubborn, and those parts of her personality had not been decreased or affected by age. But she was sick. I remember thinking that she was in a place where I as a human would not want to be; if I were so sick that my life had been maintained by machines, and I could not function, I would want to die.

Surely, a dog not being able to get up, stand up or stay up…must be analogous to being on life support.

She was my other best friend. She stuck with me no matter what. She laid by my bed for all those years; she actually slept on my bed when she had been able to jump onto it. She was the gentlest soul, and she was always there for me, but now, she was sick.

She fought to live, but I knew it wasn’t good for her so, I decided I had to put her down. It was what was right for her. I gave her the “death-prep” pill my veterinarian prescribed for her; I was to give it to her two hours before “the procedure.” I gave her the pill and then gave her a rib bone. It was her final treat. I normally didn’t give her bones because bones are bad for dogs’ teeth, I’d been told. But on this day, it didn’t matter anymore. She ate that bone with the excitement with which she had always eaten “treats,” and then she put her head on the grass still moist with dew, and went to sleep.

I went to get her a couple of hours later. Her body was completely limp, because of the pre-procedure pill. I took her to the car, already crying, and laid her on the blanket I had put on the back seat for her. My other dog jumped in and gave her a sniff and sat watch at the car window which her sleeping sister had always taken…

We got to the veterinarian’s office and were led to a room. I cradled my “other best friend” in my arms, on my lap, while my other dog pranced nervously about, sensing that something was terribly wrong, or at least different, and then the doctor came in.

She was crying, too. This dog was so lovable; she was kind and patient …and pliant, yet on the other side, she was equally as stubborn and strong.  As we put my limp dog on the table, it was hard to figure out who was crying more, me or the doctor.

The procedure went quickly, me holding my dog until she was gone. It only took minutes, and as life left her, I buried my head in her fur which would have made her, had she not been dead, give me one of her long, slow dog kisses. She was gone.

And I was mad.

I am still mad. My two best friends are gone and I am quite at a loss as to how to handle it. I know death is a part of life; God knows I have preached that truth enough.

But it doesn’t help, knowing death is part of life. Right now, it feels like death slapped me twice in three weeks. And it hurts. There is no easy way to meet grief and to get through grief,  whether it comes because you’ve lost a human friend or a furry friend.

Grief is grief.

A candid observation …

Grief, Uninvited

Grief is such a rude visitor.

It comes uninvited and too often, unannounced, and it outstays its welcome.

Emily Dickinson‘s poem, “Death,” describes well the rudeness of death, but death’s companion, grief, is much more pesky. It teases and taunts us, making us feel like we are getting better (and perhaps we are), but then it pulls the rugs from under our feet, and we find ourselves falling down into that empty hole that death left behind.

I thought about that as I listened to a person describe how horrible it has been for her since her husband died. It has only been two years, I think, as she speaks. Grief usually stays much longer than that …but this woman wanted grief to go away, and stay away, so that she could get herself together. Grief was not obliging her request and desire, and she shared that she was sinking into a deep depression.

“My soul aches,” she said. “It’s like my soul wants to vomit something up…but there is nothing there. It’s like I wretch and wretch but nothing comes up, and the wretching won’t stop.”

Were that there were an easy way to get rid of grief. Unfortunately, it is a process that takes a good bit of time to be eliminated to a point where we can function. Even after that huge block of time, grief remains a scar on our souls; there are scars there which belie a wound that was once gaping and ugly and at times, infected with anger and fear and confusion about how death or some other tragedy could have come and wreaked such havoc in our lives.

The only thing we can do in grief is to respect it – give it room to do whatever it is doing as it lingers within us – but then breathe good, deep, cleansing breaths when it takes a reprieve. We find that we go from living moment to moment, to living hour by hour, then day to day…sometimes slipping back to the moment-to-moment or hour-to hour mode, but consistently coming out of such a haphazard way of living to something more like we remember “normal” being.

I think that when our souls ache from grief, we should let them ache. We should “go with the flow” as our souls wretch with this unspeakable pain that is obviously trying to come out…because sooner or later (probably later,) the retching will stop. The acute parts of grief will have been gotten rid of, and we will be in a position to begin the healing process. We might as well go with it, because we certainly cannot direct or control the process.

When the retching finally stops, we know that we are at least getting to the possibility of putting the tragedy or loss in a place where we can see it and not have a violent reaction.

I guess that’s called life.

A candid observation …