How Seeing Death Changed Me

Death. Is there anything more strange and terrifying? We fight against it with cutting-edge medicine, science, and technology and yet it always wins. Always. Yet for something that is inevitable, we spend most of our lives ignoring it and then, when it does happen, trying to make it as clean and clinical as possible.

My first experiences with death outside of the clinical confines of medical facilities or the tidy professionalism of funeral homes came when I was a young pastor in my late 20s. I visited a church member who had been fighting cancer for years, and his battle was nearing the end. I had visited him in the hospital many times during his treatments, but now he was home, and the end was nearing. I was struck by the warmth and familiarity of his home, and he passed his final days in a place that was comfortable and comforting. As a young minister who was relatively unacquainted with death, I did my best to be a source of comfort and encouragement even though the contrast between my life experience and the experience of my parishioner could hardly have been greater.

My second experience was again with a church member. I was a bit further along in my tenure as a pastor and had a few more funerals under my belt. But, leading a funeral service is very different than being there with a family in the moments that immediately surround death. Shortly after my family had returned home from a weekend away, I received a call saying that this parishioner had passed away. He and his wife lived just down the street from us, so I walked across town to see the family. This was the first time I had been in a room with someone who had died. I cared for the family as we waited for the funeral home to arrive. During these moments, the family had an initial and powerful time to grieve privately and in the safe confines of a familiar home before the far more public process of grieving would begin with phone calls, emails, text messages, and ultimately in a funeral and a graveside service.

Over the last year of working in a clinical setting and being present at the bedside of many people as they took their final breaths, I’ve become aware of how different it is to die at home versus dying in a hospital. Despite the best efforts of caring staff and the presence of family members, dying in a hospital is a relatively cold and clinical experience. From the paint by numbers decor to the abundance of screens, IV lines, alarms, and the regular in and out of caregivers. None of this is an indictment of the staff I worked with. I was regularly struck by their compassion and empathy, especially if the patient they lost was someone who had been under their care long term. It’s more the function of modern medicine which can be incredibly dehumanizing even as it provides miraculous healing.

But in seeing death both at home and in the clinical setting, I became aware of something within myself. If I have a choice, I’d rather be home when I die. I’ll never forget visiting a parishioner in his home when he was near death. The window of his bedroom was open, and it was flooded with golden light even as he was surrounded by family and the familiar knick-knacks that had accumulated in the bedroom over the years. It felt like a sacred space in a way that a hospital room never will. I want to have the courage to face death so that once medical means are exhausted I’m able to transition from life with courage. I’m fully aware that I might not get that choice and that many people don’t. That’s one of the reasons why facing death requires courage: we can’t control it. So the question is, how can I live my life so that, to the best of my ability, I’m prepared for death whenever it comes?

The Courage to Be

“The courage to die is the test of the courage to be.”― Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be

I think this is where there is something valuable to be learned from an existential theologian/philosopher like Paul Tillich. His most well-known work, The Courage to Be, essentially wrestles with this idea of how we continue to “be” even with the ever-present weight of “nonbeing” hanging over us in the form of death. While Tillich and I have significant theological differences, his wrestling with the inherent anxiety of death and nonbeing is a helpful template in a culture that seems content to keep discussions of death hidden quietly away and never discussed until the issue is forced upon us. Tillich would say that for us to entirely be, we have to have the courage to die. How do we do that?

“We are not always aware of our having to die, but in the light of the experience of our having to die our whole life is experienced differently.” ― Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be

I think that is where it starts. An awareness of mortality. Just a few generations ago, death was a very familiar affair. It happened with regularity and with that regularity came better spiritual and mental resources to draw upon to cope with death. It also meant that the community was far more equipped for dealing with loss and for providing care to those dealing with loss. I in no way want to go back to those days but that familiarity with death is very different than our experience today so our ancestors could certainly teach us a thing or two about how to understand death. With death so often occurring in the confines of clinical settings where it is out of sight and out of mind of most, it means we never have to deal with it on a collective level and when we do have to deal with it personally, we haven’t developed the internal and external resources that previous generations had.

Seeing death with regularity has made me aware of my mortality. I hope that being aware of death helps me to experience life differently.

The Courage to Grieve

Beyond the courage to live with an awareness of mortality, is also the courage to truly grieve when death occurs. Different cultures grieve differently, but I fear that too often we handle grief like we handle death. We tuck it away in a quiet corner and don’t talk about it. We make it clinical.

We want to grieve when death happens. We need to grieve when death occurs.

Author and theologian C.S. Lewis, well known for his Chronicles of Narnia series, wrote an incredibly raw and honest account of his emotional and spiritual turmoil following the loss of his wife to cancer. He lashes out at God in anger. He considers the possibility of ghosts. He contemplates marriage in light of death. His writing lets us see him process his grief. It is not clean. It is not easy. Sometimes what he writes seems at odds with things that he wrote before experiencing the death of his wife. I contend this sort of raw and public grief is precisely what we need to better understand grief. Death turns our world upside down. Even the world of a person with a mind like C.S. Lewis.

“I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action, had H. for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on through habit fitting an arrow to the string; then I remember and have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead thought to H. I set out on one of them. But now there’s an impassable frontier-post across it. So many roads once; now so many culs de sac.” — C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Recently, I experienced the loss of a close friend. He was a friend who supported me through some of my most trying times. He was a husband and father to three young girls. His death hit me hard. His death made me ask questions. To be completely frank, an awareness of mortality and a freedom to grieve did nothing to make this death easier. What they did was provide a framework and a freedom within that framework to process his death. I’m still processing it. I may process it for the rest of my life. But this awareness of death and grief and recognizing them as a part of life is where we need to start. Let’s talk about death. Let’s talk about grief. Let’s not face these things in isolation but as a community and with the full set of emotional, spiritual, and communal supports at our disposal. Death is part of being human. Let’s not dehumanize it by hiding it away or attempting make it clean and clinical. Only when we wrestle with death in all its ugliness can we begin to fully care for each other when it inevitably overtakes those we love and when it inevitably overtakes us.

What has helped you wrestle with death and mortality? What has been helpful for you in your experiences with grief? Leave a comment below and let’s bring this conversation about death and grief out of the shadows and work through it as a community.

Experienced Chaplain. Photography Enthusiast. Lover of learning. Reader of books. Sci-Fi fan.

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