With all our intelligence and drive to make progress through recent centuries, we’ve failed to make progress in addressing the one problem we will all have at one point or another.
Death. And how to deal with it, especially if you’re the one left behind. Especially death of a child, when you are the parent.
The most we can do after the first millennium is say one of three things. The two most popular comments are “There are no words,”and “I don’t know what to say.” The third is a little more specific, but still just a crutch to help the one saying it get through such an awkward moment and move on. “Sorry for your loss.”
We’ve dedicated exponentially more time, thought, effort, and money to solving such problems as streaming movies, online Donkey Kong, iPhone apps for 99 cents, and putting gourmet meals in frozen boxes, than how to be there for each other when this happens. And it happens all around us every day.
But way down the priority list, below creature comforts and technology, are such things as our own inevitable death, and the death of every close family member, and all the friends in our lives. In the face of that, we are speechless, helpless, don’t know what to expect next, or how to prepare for whatever that is.
We have Lamaze classes for birth. For bringing a person into the world. But nothing for when they leave it. Both are transitions. We celebrate the first, and hide from the second. There are corporate bereavement policies that offer only two or three days off to grieve a lost family member. The closest thing to some kind of community understanding of how to come together is our delivering of meals to the home of the bereaved. That helps a great deal, but I would expect we have been doing that forcenturies. We just haven’t used our progress in medicine, mental health, sociology, and psychology to evolve in this area that is the only one that affects us all.
Think about how much we’ve achieved in the prevention of death. For the right reasons, we have learned to stave it off when life is most vulnerable — facing AIDS, cancer, and infinite numbers of fatal diseases. We have 911, cardio cath labs and the Heimlich maneuver. To prevent death by terrorism we put into operation massive sophisticated military and civil resources whenever there’s a whiff of terrorist activity. But isn’t it ironic that if and when a terrorist gets through and somebody dies, we run out of answers? Death is the sure thing, not life. We fight death as if it’s a winnable war, instead of studying death, the eminent one.
We are so afraid of the subject. We don’t talk about it, prepare for it, or make ourselves students of it. Yet we do, to a great extent, immerse ourselves in the understanding of other of life’s inevitabilities — hunger, disease, depression. In other words, we are so afraid of it, we ensure we will not be equipped to react to it, making the need to fear it that much more legitimate. All our progress has been in preventing death, the unpreventable, instead of understanding death, the inevitable.
The word “loss”, when you say it backwards, is the word “soul.” Not a reference to the ones who have left us, but to the symbiotic relationship between the two: loss is the workout for the soul that makes it stronger in wisdom, perspective, and understanding. And as a result, the soul is better able to bear loss.
As with the body, the workout makes it stronger — so it can handle the workout.
As a kid, the concept of life beyond what we know here and now is limited to exactly those things that repel a kid — Bible study, Sunday school, little old ladies you can’t relate to who walk slowly and stoop down to you, saying, “my how you’ve grown,” a squeaky clean antiseptic world of wafers and wine, dark sanctuaries and organ music in minor keys. Tell me — what kid wouldn’t trade a sanctuary’s lemon pledge smell for that of piles of decaying leaves and dogs and firecrackers, where childhood is alive?
So years later, in order to connect with these same subjects of life, death and what else there is between the two, I am back there, and it looks even more superficial than it did back then. I have to separate the way faith — of any religion — is introduced to us as children from what faith’s potential is when it rises to the occasion at times like this.
It can’t be a cartoon Jesus and a rousing chorus of This Little Light of Mine led by the Church Lady next to an open box of cross-shaped donuts.
The first attempt to comfort that most people offer is the word that Alex
is now with God. People are telling us that today, the first day we all are
together in Jacksonville.
They say Alex is “in a better place.”
It’s not that I don’t believe that, but that it is so irrelevant to me at the
moment. I want my boy, not God. I want to get to him. I can’t accept
any middle-man between myself and him, because I need to comfort
him, tell him it will be alright, hold him and say have no regrets about
this, move on with confidence Alex, wherever you are, with your chin
up, your sights straight ahead, and take it one day at a time, with your
But everyone else just wants to bring God into the equation, before you
are ready for God. Even as one who believes in God, I have no interest in
talking to him right now. I’m looking for Alex, not God.
I always expected that the loss of one of my children would be the source
of infinite horror and pain, and the utter loss of a will to go on. And that
What I didn’t expect is how, at certain times, it can be the source
of inspiration. Inspiration that is somehow motivating. To think more
and deeper, to feel more and stronger.