Old Cemetery

4 Lessons about Life I Learned from Death

Ten years ago . . .

It was June of 2010 when the faint scent of death wafted into the room. It was during a celebratory graduation weekend when I opened an email that brought impending news: “Mom has had a stroke,” and I was 1400 miles away.

Present day . . .

On March 11, 2020, WHO declared COVID-19 as a pandemic as the scent of death floats silently in the air…worldwide. By the end of March, millions of people were being ordered to stay home. Celebrations from weddings to graduations were cancelled. Vacations and family reunions were placed on hold. Religious gatherings, such as Easter, were replaced by online services. Elective surgeries were tabled. Trials were delayed. Ironically, funerals and memorial services, traditions most connected to death, were postponed. 

Lesson #1: Digital calendar apps cannot guard against the unexpected.

Death is an interloper. It has its own timetable. A visit by death is often a terrible inconvenience. It does not revolve around me and my schedule, but rather I am forced to make time for it by juggling my calendar around its agenda. It calls the shots, dictating when, where, and how it will visit.


Ten years ago . . .

After walking across the platform in my cap and gown on a Saturday morning, we shortened our celebratory weekend so that by the next day, I was on a plane to the Midwest. It was a rainy, humid, Monday evening when I entered my mom’s room with my Dad, my sister, and my nephew. Although her vocal responses were limited, her brief interactions implied that she was listening and comprehending. When I told her that my husband had shouted, “That’s my wife!” as I walked across the platform during graduation, she smiled. She knew her youngest was there.

Present day . . .

With safe-at-home orders being issued, time spent with immediate family increased substantially. While practicing social distancing, social interaction deliberately increased. Texts and video calling became immensely popular so that some were becoming worn out from the abundance of social contact. Neighbors reached out to neighbors. Some delivered food and such hot ticket items like toilet paper to those living near them who were a high risk. Outdoor exercise became ways to meet and greet those who lived down the street.

Lesson #2: Relationships eclipse busyness.

In this day and age, we are consumed with being busy. David Zahl notes, “To be busy is to be valuable, desired, justified. It signals importance and, therefore, enoughness.”[1] Busyness, then, becomes the image enhancer and self-esteem booster that death squashes. Death resets our priorities. It causes us to readjust our vision and to see that human connection is what is truly priceless. The virtues of compassion, listening, and empathy take precedent amidst death. Our competitive proclivities that isolate us from others diminish as our availability to others increases. In short, our lives our reordered in death.


Ten years ago . . .

On Tuesday, Mom’s responses appeared to have decreased ever so slightly. Yet, stroke victims could linger for days and weeks. No definitive answer was given to the question: “How long would it be?” Although she displayed signs on Wednesday that her organs were shutting down, she still could continue for another three weeks. We knew the end was imminent, but that did not mean placing her on hospice was easy.

Present day . . .

At first staying at home meant renewing familial relationships, completing long-awaited projects, or taking some much-needed R & R. But as the hours turned to days and the days into weeks and months, unrest emerged. Demands for re-opening carried a hope that going back to a familiar routine could return the sense of control that was lost. Some defied government orders, resulting in arrests and fines. The protests against the stay-at-home orders provided a sense of empowerment and an expression for grief.

Lesson #3: Waiting is hard.

Whether you are a child on Christmas morning or an adult waiting for life to return to a regular routine amidst a pandemic, the ability to wait does not seem to come easier with age. We are impatient in our waiting, particularly in a world in which technology provides information at our fingertips within seconds. Think of the driver who perceives that the person in front of him fails to immediately push on the gas pedal after a red light changes to green. Waiting, no matter how long, decreases our sense of control. Our life is placed on hold without our consent. As we live our lives, our routines provide us with a sense of purpose, contribution, and empowerment. A routine helps us to avoid the feeling that we are simply drifting with the current, standing by until something happens to us. Is it any wonder that nerves fray and tensions mount when we wait? Waiting implies a loss of power in our world, and we want freedom from those bonds that waiting brings.


Ten years ago . . .

On Friday morning, a nurse called to inform me that Mom’s condition had changed: Mom would die today or tomorrow.

As I pulled the car into the parking lot of the nursing facility, a dear friend also appeared. Fortuitously, we had previously arranged to meet that very morning, not realizing that death would greet us on that day. As we stood in Mom’s room in the commanding presence of death, I could only think of one thing to do: sing. Holding back the tears as my voice threatened to be overwhelmed by emotion, the words floated through the air:

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long;
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.

As our voices filled that small room, I saw my mom’s lips also moving, although no sounds flowed from her vocal chords. A little later, her pastor and his wife arrived, and the four of us robustly sang one hymn after another. Periodically, Mom’s lips moved ever so slightly as she attempted to join us. Knowing my mom liked quartets, at one point I said, “Mom, you have a quartet singing to you,” and I watched as her eyebrows raised in response.

Later that afternoon, Dad and I were alone with Mom in the room when we witnessed a pause in her breathing. The break in between breaths was long enough that Dad asked, “Is she gone?” However, as if on cue, she took another breath that was accompanied by a bodily shudder. This occurred two to three more times.

And then . . .

there was silence.
No additional breaths were taken.

No bodily shuddering was seen.

Dad and I looked at each other in that moment. No words crossed our lips.

Feelings of ambivalence—joy, sorrow, peace—overtook my soul.

It was surreal . . . sacred . . . a holy moment.

Lesson #4: God is present in death.

As I walk through this pandemic, I cling to this fourth lesson. I see death everywhere: in the wearing of masks; in the social distancing of six feet; in the plastic barriers at the checkout; in the rising death tallies. Whether I go to the store or stay home, death encircles me . . . but God is with me.

To be honest, I was not always convinced of the latter. My pentecostal upbringing generated an impression that God is with me while worshipping God, not amidst death. Frequently, I heard pentecostal ministers exhort worshippers to usher in God’s presence: “Sing praises to God because God inhabits the praises of God’s people!”[2] I repeatedly heard pentecostals speak of the psalms of praise and thanksgiving while very little was said of the psalms of lament. Instead, there were repeated commands to praise God in suffering in order to remove it. Such spoken “shoulds” generated shame for my ongoing discouragement and depression despite my offerings of praise; thus, I often secretly wondered if God had left me.

Since those years, I have learned a different tune about God’s presence, and for this blog, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann is providing me with the words to help communicate my changed song.[3] Brueggemann begins by inviting readers to consider the entirety of the Psalms rather than simply drawing from singular psalms. In this way, the placement of the various psalms serves a purpose, similar to how each Gospel writer sequenced Jesus’ life’s events according to the writer’s own purpose. For Brueggemann, the Psalter represents a journey that begins with Psalm 1, a song of obedience, and ends with Psalm 150, a song of praise.

Like the psalmist of Psalm 1, many of us begin our journey with God, believing that those who obey God will prosper, and those who disobey God will not. Yet as Brueggemann comments, such a view displays an absence of a relationship between a benevolent, omnipotent God and the existence of evil. That is, suffering (theodicy) is ignored.

If we read the whole Psalter, however, we notice that theodicy is not neglected. Departing from the safety and protection of Psalm 1, the Psalter plunges into suffering through inflamed objections. From protests, which rail against God for allowing the wicked to prosper, to songs of lament, which cry out to God amidst suffering, the Psalter refuses to be silent on the subjects of suffering, evil, and injustice.

Highs. Lows. Mountain peaks. Valleys. This is the journey seen in the Psalter until we reach the end, Psalm 150, a song of praise. This song, however, is not to be taken out of context. We are to notice that it occurs after walking through desolation. At this point in the Psalter, the journeyer is no longer solely focused on prosperity and health. Instead, the journeyer realizes in the end that God’s presence, which abides in both celebration and sorrow, is all that matters. Psalm 150, then, becomes an authentic offering of praise, not a should that ignores suffering. Psalm 150 is authentic because it flows via lament rather than as a should to avoid lament.

This journey through the Psalter illuminates that God’s presence is not dependent on my praise. Instead, God’s presence is grace in action during all seasons of life.

Today, as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, may we say with the psalmist, “God is with us.” May we join our voices with the Apostle Paul, “Nothing can separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” During death, may we, too, receive “blessed assurance” that God is here.


FOOTNOTES:

[1] David Zahl, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2019), Kindle Edition, 5.

[2] While such ministers were quoting Scripture, they were not quoting the best rendering of Psalm 22:3. The NET provides a better understanding: “You are holy; you sit as king receiving the praises of Israel.”

[3] Walter Brueggemann, “Bounded by Obedience and Praise,” in The Psalms and Life of Faith, edited by Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995).