Death, dying, and grief (7)

In this blog we continue our thoughts about constructing those conditions in which we are able to accept the inevitability of death as a joyful conclusion to the experience of life. This follows number 1 of approaching life with a creative delight of change.

2. Another way is to live in awe: I remember seeing a forest of giant redwoods for the first time. There were some small children nearby, giggling and chattering and pushing each other around. Nobody had to tell them to quiet down as we entered. They quieted down all by themselves. Everybody did. You couldn’t hear a sound of any kind. It was like coming into a vast, empty room.

Two or three hundred feet high the redwoods stood. You had to crane your neck as far back as it would go to see the leaves at the top. They made their own twilight out of the bright California day. There was a stillness and stateliness about them that seemed to become part of you as you stood there stunned by the sight of them. They had been growing in that place for going on two thousand years. With infinite care they were growing even now. You could feel them doing it. They made you realize that all your life you had been mistaken. Oaks, maples and chestnuts and elms you had seen as long as you could remember, but never until this moment had you so much as dreamed what a Tree really was.

You may not experience the giant redwood but you can probably at some time experience the drooping willow, the square-shoulder oak, the graceful elm, the murmuring pine, the shimmering beech, the shady maple, or the motherly apple tree. In each you can experience your own sense of awe. I like to sense the word tang. Tang is hard to define apart from the name of an orange drink – but it suggests some real pictures – the crisp air of a spring morning, the blue smoke of burning wood, the tiny violet blooming in the spring, the taste of a russet apple, and what Browning calls, “The cool silver shock of a plunge in the pool’s living water” – all of these things have tang – they are to be sensed with awe. It is a way to be truly alive!

3.  Embracing change (number 1), in and of itself is not sufficient to help one come to terms with death. The change produced by the fully alive person is guided by that person’s “reason for living,” but not just any reason will do. It is not legitimate, for example, to seek to change the world or the people in it, in order to avoid changing one’s self.

However, there are some reasons for living that do have the power to encourage the growth of humanness. What, for example, does it mean to live for “justice,” “peace,” or “love”? The words look nice on paper, sound nice from pulpits, but they are so abstract one hardly knows what do with them. We must have specific reasons for living that will evoke our devotion and if need be, our death.

What are your reasons for living? Though your death is certain, it may be distant. What do you live for? Would your reasons for living be different if you knew your death were near? It is almost impossible to say with precision what we are actually doing with our lives. But an effort to examine our “ultimate concerns” is a most useful preparation for the experience of dying.

Thinking About Death

There are three times when you particularly think about death.

·      First, when someone you love very much dies – a child, a grandparent, a husband, a wife, or a close friend.

·      Second, when there is a real possibility that you, yourself, may die, and you know it. And

·      Third, when someone, whom you have never known personally but who presented something important in the life of the world dies and leaves a vast emptiness. For example in my own life it may be an old man, like Sir Winston Churchill, who dies in the natural course of events after a long, triumphant life. It may be a young man, like John Kennedy, who dies unnaturally, still on the brink of promise. It may be still a younger man, like Jonathan Daniels, who was shot when he went to Alabama to help prepare African Americans for voter registration.

I am not suggesting you or I think of death at no other time, but at these particular times we are bound to think about it; we are shocked into thinking about it. You know the person who has died will never come back. You also wonder whether death is the end of the person, whether there is anything beyond for her, whether she is extinct, or whether she may still be. You accept the finality of death as a fact, but you keep wondering about the future – theirs as well as your own.

Some people can accept the obvious and easy answer. That answer is that death is the end of a person just as birth is the beginning of him. A person is like a flower, they think; it begins with a tiny seed buried in the ground, it buds, blooms, fades, and then dies. Other flowers, to be sure, take its place, but that flower is gone, gone forever.

But you still wonder. A person is not exactly like a flower, or even like a redwood in its more magnificent dimensions. So you still wonder, still think about the future. What lies beyond death? This is one of the questions you will contemplate as you read this material.