The Reality and Finality of Death
We’ve all experienced the desolation of being left in one way or another. And sooner or later, many of us experience the greatest desolation of all: he or she is gone. The one who made life what it was for us—who was, in fact, our life.
And we were not ready. Not really prepared at all. We felt, when the fact stared us in the face, “No. Not yet.” For however bravely we may have looked at the possibilities (if we had any warning at all), however calmly we may have talked about them with the one who was about to die, we are caught short. If we had another week, perhaps, to brace ourselves . . . a few more days to say what we wanted to say, to do or undo some things, wouldn’t it have been better, easier?
But silent, swift, and implacable the Scythe has swept by, and he is gone, and we are left. Yet, most strangely, that stunning snatching away has changed nothing very much. The mail comes, the phone rings, Wednesday gives way to Thursday and this week to next week, and you have to keep getting up in the morning (“Life must go on, I forget just why,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay) and combing your hair (for whom, now?), eating breakfast (remember to get out only one egg now, not three), and making the bed (who cares?). You have to meet people who most fervently wish they could pass by on the other side so as not to have to think of something to say. You resist the temptation, when they say he’s “passed away,” to say “No, he’s dead, you know.”
After a few months you’ve learned those initial lessons. You begin to say “I” instead of “we” and people have sent their cards and flowers and said the things they ought to say and their lives are going on and so, astonishingly, is yours and you’ve “adjusted” to some of the differences—as if that little mechanical word, a mere tinkering with your routines and emotions, covers the ascent from the pit.
From Death to Life, Every Time
I speak of the “ascent.” I am convinced that every death, of whatever kind, through which we are called to go must lead to a resurrection. This is the core of Christian faith. Death is the end of every life and leads to resurrection, the beginning of every new one. It is a progression, a proper progression, the way things were meant to be, the necessary means of ongoing life. But the death of the beloved means, in a different but perhaps equally fearsome way, a going through the valley of the shadow.
I can think of six simple things that have helped me through this valley and that help me now.
1. Be Still and Know
First, I try to be still and know that he is God. That advice comes from Psalm 46, which begins by describing the sort of trouble from which God is our refuge—the earth’s changing, or “giving way” as the Jerusalem Bible puts it, the mountains shaking, the waters roaring and foaming, nations raging, kingdoms tottering, the earth melting. None of these cataclysms seem an exaggeration of what happens when somebody dies. The things that seemed most dependable have given way altogether. The whole world has a different look and you find it hard to get your bearings. But in both psalms we are reminded of one rock-solid fact that nothing can change: Thou art with me. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. We feel that we are alone, yet we are not alone. Not for one moment has He left us alone. He makes wars cease, breaks bows, shatters spears, burns chariots (breaks hearts, shatters lives?), but in the midst of all this hullabaloo we are commanded, “Be still.” Be still and know.
2. Give Thanks
The second thing I try to do is to give thanks. I can thank him that he is still in charge, in the face of life’s worst terrors, and that “this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen” (2 Cor. 4:17–18). The things unseen are standing solidly (yes, solidly, incredible as it seems) against things seen (the fact of death, my own loneliness, this empty room). And I am lifted up by the promise of that “weight” of glory, so far greater than the weight of sorrow that at times seems to grind me like a millstone. This promise enables me to give thanks.
And I am lifted up by the promise of that “weight” of glory, so far greater than the weight of sorrow that at times seems to grind me like a millstone.
3. Refuse Self-Pity
Then I try to refuse self-pity. I know of nothing more paralyzing, more deadly, than self-pity. It is a death that has no resurrection, a sinkhole from which no rescuing hand can drag you because you have chosen to sink. But it must be refused. In order to refuse it, of course, one must recognize it for what it is. It is one thing to call a spade a spade, to acknowledge that this thing is indeed suffering. It’s no use telling yourself it’s nothing. But it’s another thing to regard one’s own suffering as uncommon, or disproportionate, or undeserved. We are all under the God’s mercy, and Christ knows the precise weight and proportion of our sufferings—he bore them. He carried our sorrows. "He suffered," wrote George Macdonald, "not that we might not suffer, but that our sufferings might be like his."
4. Accept Loneliness
The next thing to do is to accept my loneliness. When God takes a loved person from my life it is in order to call me, in a new way, to himself. It is therefore a vocation. It is in this sphere, for now anyway, that I am to learn of him. Every stage on the pilgrimage is a chance to know him, to be brought to him. Loneliness is a stage (and, thank God, only a stage) when we are terribly aware of our own helplessness. It “opens the gates of my soul,” wrote Katherine Mansfield, “and lets the wild beasts stream howling through.” We may accept this, thankful that it brings us to the very present help.
5. Offer It to God
The acceptance of loneliness can be followed immediately by the offering of it up to God. Something mysterious and miraculous transpires as soon as something is held up in our hands as a gift. He takes it from us, as Jesus took the little lunch when five thousand people were hungry. He gives thanks for it and then, breaking it, transforms it for the good of others. Loneliness looks pretty paltry as a gift to offer to God—but then, when you come to think of it, so does anything else we might offer. It needs transforming. Others looking at it would say exactly what the disciples said, “What’s the good of that with such a crowd?” But it was none of their business what use the Son of God would make of it. And it is none of ours—it’s ours only to give it.
6. Be a Help to Others
The last of the helps I have found is to do something for somebody else. There is nothing like definite, overt action to overcome the inertia of grief. That is what we need in a time of crisis. Most of us have someone who needs us. If we haven’t, we can find someone. Instead of praying only for the strength we ourselves need to survive, this day or this hour, how about praying for some to give away? How about trusting God to fulfill his own promise, “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9)? Where else is his power more perfectly manifested than in a human being who, well knowing his own weakness, lays hold by faith on the strong Son of God, Immortal Love?
It is here that a great spiritual principle goes into operation. Isaiah 58:10–12 says, “If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail, and . . . you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.”
The condition on which all these wonderful gifts (light, guidance, satisfaction, strength, refreshment to others) rests is an unexpected one—unexpected, that is, if we are accustomed to think in material instead of in spiritual terms. The condition is not that one solve his own problems first. He need not “get it together.” The condition is simply “if you pour yourself out.”
Perhaps it is peace, of all God’s earthly gifts, that in our extremity we long for most. A priest told me of a terminally ill woman who asked him each time he came to visit only to pray, “The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).
The Hope of Everlasting Life
There they are—six things that, if done in faith, can be the way to resurrection: be still and know, give thanks, refuse self-pity, accept the loneliness, offer it to God, turn your energies toward the satisfaction, not of your own needs, but of others'. And there will be no calculating the extent to which:
From the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.
This article is adapted from the tract "Facing the Death of Someone You Love" by Elisabeth Elliot.