Why We Should Lean Into the Mystery of Death
A friend recently shared with me about the passing of his coworker from cancer. The man had been a long-time, established employee of a small but growing engineering firm. The company, however, was oddly quiet about his illness in all-staff meetings and group emails. When the man passed away, only a handful of the employees attended his local funeral.
Why hadn’t there been more said about this man, his sickness, and his passing? Why hadn’t there been a company wide understanding that it would be okay to miss work that day to be present at the funeral? Was it simply a matter of time and productivity, the fear of missing a day’s worth of work? Or was something deeper going on?
If you’ve ever been to a visitation or funeral, you know that it is not a comfortable place. It is unclear what to do and what to say, because ultimately our words can seem to fail in the face of death and its gravity. While we struggle with what to say, we also struggle with our own internal battles having to do with death and its many mysterious details.
What too often happens is that, when fear stops us from entering into death, we inflict an equally painful hurt on those who are already grieving and prevent our own opportunities to process death’s inevitability. This fear and discomfort can stop us from trying to love and honor the one who has passed and the family and friends they leave behind. It can also stop us from asking ourselves those deeper questions swirling in our hearts about the reality of death.
I wonder if that fear was what stopped this man’s coworkers from attending his funeral. I wonder if they didn’t know what to say or how to be. I wonder if they didn’t realize how much it would mean to the man’s wife and children to see his coworkers there, knowing the impact his life had on them. I wonder if his coworkers feared their own minds, their own hearts, their own questions.
Musing on death means musing about everything that comes with it — what the experience of death feels like, the meaning of our lives before death, and what happens after we die. We wonder if we’ve lived a good life, if we will be missed when we die, if we made the impact we hoped to make on the world. We fear that which has been left undone and that which we haven’t yet been able to do.
I know well what it means to struggle with these questions and to wrestle with the discomfort of death. When I was a senior in high school, my dad passed away after a year long battle with brain cancer. Many people packed the church to say goodbye to a mentor, friend, and father figure at his funeral. His fellow swim coaches and athletes, members of the University’s athletic department, and professional friends missed work just to be present at his funeral. My classmates were excused from school to ride a bus to attend the funeral as well. It seemed like everyone understood the value and beauty of being there for our family as we grieved, the power of presence and the sacredness of a Catholic funeral.
I also had to face death head-on through the process of watching him die, spending nights in the hospital with him while we both knew that he was facing something he would not overcome, making our last memories as his body deteriorated, speaking my last words to him as he laid in hospice in our living room in a completely unresponsive state (though his eyes remained open and I had hope he heard all that was said).
Having experienced death in such a uniquely personal way myself, I often find that others who are struggling with the sickness and death of a loved one find comfort in talking to someone who has also been through it themselves. There is a language we speak, a courage to ask the hard questions and receive the even harder answers.
But it is just as important for them to receive love and support from their community and to be reminded that they are, in fact, not alone in their sufferings. You might know that compassion means, “to suffer with.” One doesn’t need the perfect words to fix their suffering — those don’t exist. It is the “being with” that means the most, as well as the willingness to be rejected in one’s attempts to suffer with another as that person processes their grief.
It’s also important not to let your fears stop you from entering into the mystery of death yourself, because, ultimately, we are all going to die. Let your mind ponder death and let your body enter into the discomfort. Bring your questions and fears up to those you most trust. Find a mentor, priest, spiritual director, or counselor to process your existential questions with. Ask Jesus to give you peace and confidence in him so that you can begin a journey of coming to terms with your own mortality.
Many articles have been written about what those on their deathbeds wish they would have done differently, said differently, during their lifetime. What if we didn’t have to wait until our deathbeds to ponder these questions? What if our wrestling with them now led to a more whole, more fulfilled life today? What if we allowed death to give us perspective on what really matters, what’s really the most important, and gave us the freedom to say yes to those most important things now instead of waiting for them until later, until possibly too much later?
Have courage knowing that we all have our fears and unanswered questions about death and how to love those facing it. Ultimately, though, there is real good that can come from letting ourselves experience the discomfort in a healthy way, both for ourselves and those around us. Even when words fail and questions remain unanswered, we can still experience unity, community, and comradery in ours and others’ grief and wonder.