Last week I had several conversations with people about death. One of them was with a woman who’s preoccupied with the fear of dying and has recently been diagnosed with a serious condition. In the last few months her life has become all about her death. She sees it as a cold and brutal wrenching away from everything she loves, into a vacuum, a vast expanse of silence, in which she will be alone and lost and formless but somehow still herself, still able to fear and think, in unspeakable nothingness. We talked for a long time and she wept and grew angry, then calmed and finally met my eyes urgently “Aren’t you afraid of death?” and without even thinking the words were out, “No, because I know where I’m going.”
Straight away I wanted to grab the words back because I’m sure that sounded cocky and arrogant to this non Christian – and even exclusive – but it wasn’t meant to be. Obvs. And we did go on to talk a little bit about God’s goodness (rather than mine!) and I had the chance to say that I’m not afraid because eternity is not place or time but a Someone, Someone who loves me with the deepest unfailing love. And Someone who loves her.
But I still felt uncomfortable about how we’d left the conversation. And I wondered what I could have said differently. Wondered if she’d gone home a bit hurt. Put off by this Christian’s blithe equanimity and certainty. Oh, dear. What a twit I am.
The thing is, my little house seems to be a magnet for the grief stricken just now. Which is odd because I am the last person on this earth to weep alongside. Maybe it’s just because I’m single and so I’m mostly alone, and the door is always on the latch.
And I don’t mind tears and loss, just as I don’t mind laughter and nonsense.
I was a nurse before I was a playwright and I know there’s nothing to fear about death or the bereaved. I’ve held the hand of the dying, and if I could do nothing else to help there were always the tiny things that might just ease the moment… turning their pillows to a cooler side… massaging feet…. moistening lips. Most people die in their sleep, they sleep more and more, deeper and deeper and deeper, until they simply don’t wake up. There is nothing in that to fear. On the wards back then we washed the body before it went to the mortuary, and this was the last precious little act of friendship. A quiet time to say goodbye and come to terms with the stillness and the unassailable nature of death. So death is a familiar and expected thing.
Not for everyone. I’ve been on the receiving end of other people’s fear, their inability to cope with the idea of mortality. Just after my husband died, a neighbour I knew well hid behind a tree to avoid me! She was in a bright red jacket (and considerably wider than the tree) plus her dog was straining at the lead and clearly visible, but she cowered there, dreading the thought of speaking to a brand new widow. Silly lady. You know, when someone’s grieving, you can still talk to them as if they’re human, they still need to laugh, to think about the ordinary things.
Death is just a part of life, demanding respect and compassion but no melodrama, no self indulgence, and no squeamishness. My generation, especially those of us brought up in the Catholic culture, are familiar with death. I agree with Shakespeare “Moderate lamentation is the right of the dead, excessive grief the enemy to the living.”
George didn’t slip sweetly into eternal rest, his was a sudden, shocking, frightening death. Lou’s last sight of the Daddy she loved so much had been when he was livid blue, being given cardiac massage, the medics struggling to insert an airway. It was chaos and horror and she heard me telling them to stop the attempt. And they did. What a last memory, that would have been. So I wanted her to see him at peace, in the quiet and calm of the Chapel of Rest. Those few minutes were good for both of us (I think), as she said her goodbye. Right then I recognised something I already knew viscerally but had never realised, even with all my experience both professional and personal, and I’ll never forget the cold shock of it. I’ve tried writing about it before but I can’t quite convey the reality of it. Looking at George, this man I loved and knew so well (no rose tinted specs here – we had our ding-dongs) I was paralysed by the realisation that there was no greater distance in the universe than the distance that was now between us. Between the dead and the living. I saw with startling clarity that we were ripped apart and that any sentimental wish-it-were-other, any talk about him watching over us, or his presence remaining, was untrue. There was a vast, bottomless, unbridgeable chasm between us. He had become, quite simply, ‘other’.
And I knew too – don’t ask me how – as I looked at my gentle Scot, that at the moment, the very instant of his death, he was with God. Not an hour later, not ten minutes later, his spirit didn’t hang about wanting to say farewell, hovering like some Dickensian imagining. In the instant of his death He was with Christ, His God. I just knew it. His story was told, his race was run. Done. Gone. And the living had no call upon him. We had no call upon him. Done.
I don’t know how I knew. I just did.
That’s why I’m not afraid.
So, listen, my door is open if you need to talk about your death, or the loss of loved ones. It is. I have all the time in the world to hear everything you have to say, however confused or angry or sobbing and snotty, however prayerful and grace-filled, or bitter or bewildered, however maudlin’ you may be. The door is on the latch and I can make tea and coffee and nothing you say will shock me. I have a box of tissues, and when that runs out there’s bog roll. If it’s a marathon session I can do toast. But you probably won’t get a hug, and I’m unlikely to cry with you. I won’t piggy-back on your grief. I’ve been where you are, and I know you’ll get through this, and the best I can offer is my company and the occasional nod. Another beating heart alongside yours.
We need to weep for those we love, and they deserve our tears. And when we speak to each other about fear and loss, of course we will say awkward lumpy things and maybe feel, like me, a bit crass. When we see someone in the depths of grief, we will feel helpless, we will. But don’t hide behind a tree. Be there for others and if you’re the one blubbing, blub away. You’re allowed.
But I warn you now, if you say to me “Are you afraid of death?” I’ll probably say again, “No, because I know where I’m going.” I don’t know how else to answer that question. I do know where I’m going but the good news is that it’s not an exclusive club; you are loved, Jesus loves you, He’s prepared the way, and He’s waiting.
We sing these words at my church and every single time they take my breath away. I have a little pendant that says ‘belong’ and as I think about these words I trace that word.
Boldly I approach Your throne
Blameless now I’m running home
By Your blood I come
Welcomed as Your own
Into the arms of majesty
Jesus said “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
He has already overcome the world.
So if you’re missing someone you love, and on the second box of tissues and you’re blinded by your salty tears, all snotty and hiccuping, shivering and empty, and the world is a grim and lonely place, remember a promise at the end of the Bible, a special promise for times such as this:
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
This is so weird, sugar lumps. What gives me the right to talk to you like this? Where does it all come from? How come I’m so certain? It’s weird. Weird. I didn’t know I was going to say any of this when I sat down at the keyboard….. I woke up knowing I had to write something, but I had no idea what. And this is the result. I believe that this is for someone in particular, but I don’t know who.
*This morning I had a text from that weeping fearful person (relax, she doesn’t blog), and she’s driving over to catch up again. So I’m going down to the beach now, and one of the things I’ll be praying is “You know when she comes, Lord? Will you help me to nod a bit, and listen a lot? Will you be there with us, loving her, helping me to love her? I can’t do it on my own. Oh, and thank you for my door and the latch that can hold it open, and for a table to sit at, and ears to hear.”