Death is Not a Four-Letter Word (So Let's Talk About It)
Putting the word ‘death’ in an opening line isn’t usually a good way to start, because people think of it as more of an ending.
But death is on my mind and I’m wondering if there could be something akin to hopefulness to add to the never-ending dialogue about this uncontrollable and unexplainable thing. Perhaps there are no perfect words to encapsulate death, but I desperately want to find a rhythm that doesn’t come out as a cliché. Those tired words that we hear over and over again, the ones that tell us it is hard and that God cares and that we are loved and have hope – they are true, yes, but they leave me lurching and grasping for more. There is more to be said here, but how to line the words up right?
I don’t pretend to know all of the answers. I have not run the full gamut with death. But I have sat long and late at bedsides and I have seen counters littered with pill bottles. I have heard death trundling down the tracks as it draws ever louder towards the ones that I loved, and I have been left empty and confused as it left the station with them aboard. I have woken up to days when all I can hear is my scared and bitter heart whispering, “What’s the point? If the people I love are going to die and so am I, what’s even the point of being alive today?”
Of course, they don’t make greeting cards with sentiments like that. But for once, just once – what would happen if we stopped averting our eyes from death? If we raised our chins and steadied our hearts and stopped talking about it in hushed tones as if it were a dirty, four-letter word? Would we melt under the weight of grief and fear? Or would we find that, like discovering Oz was a just a man, our courage to walk right up to the curtain reveals something unexpected, and, dare I say – awe-inspiring?
But for once, just once - what would happen if we stopped averting our eyes from death?
My vibrant mother-in-law died last week. She had a brain tumor, the bad kind, and her journey with that tumor was about eight months long. When she made the decision to stop treatment, we knew that she was dying and we began walking with her toward it.
It was then that something strange happened. It seemed, somehow, that life and death became flip-flopped. Not only for Anne, who stepped toward death with leaps and bounds, but also for us, who went alongside her and tried to keep up. We watched her carefully, knowing she was at the precipice of something that we didn’t totally understand. Though we were technically all alive, it felt like we were sloughing through death together.
You see, being that close to death affects you, for you have no choice but to enter into it yourself. One morning we got the call that her moment might be coming. I remember going outside to be alone and thinking how odd it felt for the crickets to be buzzing, for the breeze to be teasing loose strands of hair from my ponytail. All around me was a jungle of the most luscious green. The sun was shining sheer brilliance. If there was ever a moment to feel alive, that would have been it. But the life pulsing through my own veins seemed to have grown stagnant. I stood in the sun and marveled at how I felt nothing at all.
It was then that I realized that the moment we were all watching for - the moment when Anne left this world to go to the next – that moment would not be Anne dying. It would be Anne coming alive again, more vivid and free and exceptional and extravagant than ever before. She would, in fact, be more alive than any of us. Death was just her ticket into that kind of living, a door opening into Heaven that she would soon walk through and leave behind.
In the past, I have been in love with this world, and that’s contributed largely to my dread of dying. I couldn’t imagine anything more brilliant than climbing into fresh flannel sheets on a cold night, or smelling the wintery sweet must on my pillowcase before falling asleep. I couldn’t dream of anything more refreshing than an ocean wave consuming me on a hot day. I’ve taken sips of coffee that have made me want to cry and I’ve clung tightly to my little babies, running my fingers up and down their soft skin and kissing their tender rolls. Could Heaven really be better this?
But now I know that in this life, death will always be creeping in. It already has; ones I have loved have gone and I will too. Without Jesus, I would be lost with this reality in a well of darkness. Death settles heavily on the human soul. The knowledge of it, the waiting for it, the dreading it – it is the source of soul-crunching anguish. It is, is seems, counter to our very nature.
So we turn away and we talk about it in whispers. We think about it as little as possible and hope that it won’t interrupt our happiness too much. When we are forced to acknowledge it, we buckle. We aren’t prepared because we don’t talk about it with any real substance. We think scary thoughts but never dream of speaking them out loud. We think death too heavy, too morose, too morbid to bring up in conversation.
To us, death feels like something we can’t evade, something we can’t duck under or flirt our way out of. It feels crude and final and unfair, like a guillotine to tender neck. But thank God, Jesus died to rescue us from the terror of being human. He is the one who shatters bronze doors and breaks iron bars in two, and nothing, nothing, can hold him back or hold him down (Isaiah 45). With him beside us, we can look death right in the eye and say, “You, even you, cannot take my life.” He uses death, as a matter of fact, to usher us into even better living.
But thank God, Jesus died to rescue us from the terror of being human.
I won’t pretend to know what Heaven will be like. But I know for sure that death will not be creeping around. And I know that Life will be everywhere. And I believe we’ll feel joy and radiance coursing through our veins with such vivacity that we’ll only be able to laugh and sing and shout at the wonder of it.I believe we’ll experience life more victoriously than these old earthly bodies could imagine, and that that will be better even than flannel sheets or hot coffee. Every day I'm falling more out of love with this world and more in love with the idea of Heaven.
Today I’m weary from this journey through death’s territory. But I’m also clutching onto a sliver of radiance from the glimpse of Heaven I caught as its doors opened for Anne. It gives me hope of a future better than I can dream. And for now, I’m holding hands with Jesus and as long as I’m doing that, the existential boogeyman can’t get me. When those ‘what’s-the-point’ whispers try to drag me into their deep well of despair, I squeeze him tighter, and, while I still don’t have all the answers, just being with him feels like enough.