We at Locally Grown HQ have been talking about inviting guest bloggers to author occasional posts here. And then I noticed that Justin Stets was the guest Faith columnist in last weekend’s Northfield News, writing about his struggles after his sister took her life last year. (A tip-of-the-blog hat to the paper for giving a lay person access to that space.)
Obituary notices had been on my mind already (no link necessary) so his column got me thinking about the local public conversations that happen or don’t happen when someone dies… and whether the local online world could be helpful.
Northfield teachers Brenda and Andrew Gilbertson contributed to a public Caringbridge site for a couple of years until Brenda died last spring. I didn’t know either of them but I do remember hoping Andrew would continue writing publicly after Brenda died. I thought the visible community conversation after her death could be as important for healing as that which occurred online while she was sick.
Don Tarr died suddenly in June last year, a week after we’d interviewed him for our podcast. In retrospect, I wish I’d started a public conversation online about him and his contributions to the community.
Each August, the Northfield Bicycle Club hosts Tours de Nick, the annual bicycle tour in memory of young Nick Sansome who took his life five years ago. Each year, I find myself wanting to click my way to a website about Nick, as my memory of him is fading.
Justin’s sister didn’t live here so this is a bit different than the examples above. But Justin does live here and he’s gone public with his reflections so maybe it’s as good a place as any to start talking about death in community and what role, if any, the local online world/blogosphere could play beyond posting the same obituaries that appear in the paper.
I asked Justin for permission to post his column and he emailed me the text of it. I couldn’t find a link to it on the News’ website. Also, I didn’t ask for his commitment to participate in a conversation thread here, as I didn’t want to be presumptuous. This might be a good idea or a lousy idea and he shouldn’t be the one to make something happen. That’s up to the rest of us.
Out of Darkness by Justin Stets
A little over a year ago, my sister took her life. This loss of one I loved deeply intensified my existing fear of death. It also required me to face my anxieties straight on, and that is what I have been doing for the past year.
The fear of death grips me fiercely. I have always struggled with the concept of my mortality. For a person of my age, I have spun and analyzed death too many times over. Almost half way through life and I have yet to come to terms with the fact that one day biology stops working, cells stop reproducing and the heart stops beating. From an emotional standpoint, I don’t much wish to leave my children. Spiritually, I feel like when I am 70 or so, that that is the time I will begin to understand what life is all about. Life, for me, is really worth living and the more I live, the more I want to live, and learn and love and change the world.
My monologues about death are prolific, but dialogues are harder to come by. Death is a real conversation-stopper among us mortals; even more so, when a suicide is involved, for death by choice represents the darker side of an earthly departure.
This summer, a well-grounded Northfield minister described the passage beyond earth in these words: Like a natural rhythm, as we take our last breath on earth, the very next breath comes in the world of eternity. Over the last year, as I have sat in darkness and despair, I thought intently about the sound of my breath. In my reflections, I have discovered two new perspectives about death. Each provides me a measure of comfort.
A very wise woman recently asked me to read and reflect on John 11:35. Though perhaps famous for being one of the Bible’s shortest verses, she asked me to consider it as the longest verse in the Bible. Jesus wept. And he wept. And he wept. He kept on weeping for the loss of his friend. Since the dawn of human existence, the passage of death I surmise has not changed. In death, we are most vulnerable. We have no control. We have no leverage. We have nothing. We have no protectorate, no angles, no defenses and no choice. By experiencing the death of someone close to us, we weep as Christ wept for Lazarus, raising our hands and our hearts to God in anguish, perhaps despair. The image of Christ’s body shaking and his hands covering his face with tears flowing is comforting to me. The comfort is in knowing that Christ was as emotionally attached to humanity as you and me.
My second perspective formed is a clearer understanding of the good conversations surrounding funerals. I have begun to appreciate and feel at ease at a funeral. In the funeral setting, I suspend my daily routine and enter a dialogue with fellow mourners that is materially different in quality and tone from my normal day. Around the casket, we speak of relationships, impact, priorities, and ways in which someone has touched us. We remember times when we were most human with the person we loved. We speak of what we learned from the person who has passed, what we failed to say to them when they were living, and what we never needed to say because it was always understood. Funerals are like droplets of real conversations on a page mostly filled with routine, noise, fear, and busyness. At a funeral, we come together to share the one common fearful experience that connects us all – our passing from this world. And this passage is made painfully human by the bounds and bonds of relationships. Severed relationships, cut clean by death, make us cry; make us weep and make us mourn miserably.
I recall from my Catholic upbringing that a sacrament is a visible sign that conveys an inward, spiritual grace. Sacraments can be described as those moments in our existence where we are “touched by God”, times where we are lifted spiritually beyond ourselves – above ourselves – outside of ourselves. In an untraditional but similar way, the funeral ritual actually knocks me over with grace. I am transported out of myself as I approach the casket in a wake line, or when I smell the incense in the final blessing, or when I hear laughter in the church hall after a service. These images take me to a richer, fuller, more human place. A place where God is, a place where I am, and a place where my loved one is. A place, perhaps, of trinity.
When he wept so bitterly for Lazarus, I do not believe that Christ was only thinking of the loss of a dear friendship or the pain of his departure. He was also thinking of humanity unfulfilled. And it is in that precise space of unfulfillment, that is, in death, where humanity and God meet. In the pain of “what will never be” is exactly where God reaches out to human creatures. God extending and filling the space between here and there is best defined as grace. When we come together as humans to reflect on our unfulfilled relationships, I believe we abundantly receive God’s grace.
From here to there, from life to death, connected by the natural rhythm of breath, we inhale in life, and we exhale to grace beyond death.