When Death Arrives Out of Season

The congregation I serve in Tuscaloosa, AL has been profoundly impacted by the loss of two people in the community.  One a beloved college professor was killed in an accident when a motorcycle driver driving excessive speeds on a winding road collided with her car.  The other was a young man,  age 39,  who died of a brain embolism.  Both individuals had connections to the congregation in multiple ways, either formally at one point or through members.

We know that death will come to all of us yet it is difficult when death arrives out of season.  How do we make peace with all the jumbled emotions that surface at times like these?

There are the platitudes that good meaning people share.   We all know them.  “God needed them.”   “You will see them again in Heaven.”  “God only gives us what we have the strength to bear.”  These words, however well intended,  are not helpful for the loved ones who survive. They raise more painful questions, “Didn’t I need them too?”  “Why did God make me so strong?” “Why would a loving God give me this to bear?”

The platitudes gloss over the depth of the emotions being felt.  Grief is an emotion that needs to be felt and experienced on its own terms and in its own way.  To deny or minimalize  grief through platitudes is in some ways to deny the love that was felt between the two people.

There is a story that I have used from Edward Searl’s In Memoriam.  The story is based from an essay by naturalist Loren Eisley.  He has taken a walk through the woods and decides to nap against a stump.  He is awoken by a cry.  A raven had captured a nestling and had it in its beak.  The parent birds were outraged and flying around the raven.   The raven unperturbed ate the nestling. Other birds joined in the protest, squawking in protest over the fate of the young bird.

Then Eisley writes, “The sighing died. It was then I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death. I will never see it again so forcefully presented.  I will never hear it again in notes so tragically prolonged.  For in the midst of a protest, they forgot the violence.  There, in the clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush, and finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together s birds are known to sing.  They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful.  They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven.  In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were singers of life, and not of death. ”

Protest, cry out against the deaths of our loved ones, and acknowledge the loss.  Acknowledge that life will not be the same.  But death is a part of life.  It is what we will all face, even our own, at some point in the future.  Therefore it is also important to acknowledge that “life is sweet and sunlight beautiful.”

Celebrate the life shared with each other. Honor those memories that have touched and shaped us by telling others these memories so that they too may be enriched if only by the telling of the  story.

To have to grieve the loss of any loved one is difficult.  When that loved one is young and full of life, it seems even harder and certainly out of season.  To share the stories of their life, the funny stories, the poignant stories, the uplifting stories of their life is vital to the grief process.  So listen with full heart to the stories being shared and avoid the temptation to respond with a platitude.  Respond with hugs, with tears, and even with silence and when the time comes respond with songs of life for we too, are singers of life, and not of death.  Blessings,

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One Comment

  1. thanks…. still need more handkerchiefs…


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