when I had my first encounter with death, not the movie or funeral home kind of death but the real thing as in a person without breath, without color, their mouth frozen open as they were when their soul left the body. That was my job in high school, a nursing assistant, and while others my age were figuring out how to ask someone to a date I was learning how to properly clean and present the dead while we waited for the funeral home.
In my early years in ministry death was there as well. The call in the night. The bedside vigil. Watching, praying, trying to think of something that would help as the person moved from this life to the next. Mostly peaceful, sometimes violent, always in the understanding that sometime profound had happened, perhaps the most profound thing of all.
The sad truth is that I don’t even remember all of them, the bodies I washed, the vigils I kept, the funerals I’ve done. The traumatic ones have stayed. Those I watched over who were close to me remain. Others, sadly, have been lost to time and only remain in God’s memory. Each has left their mark. The first was an older lady well into her dementia. The most violent was a man who died in front of me as he coughed up his lungs into a towel I was holding because it happened so suddenly we couldn’t even get him to bed. The saddest were the man who I watched die in the middle of DT’s in his middle 40’s and the old man I sat with in the Kansas nursing home who had suffered his whole life with both mental illness and the tragic stigma that it came with in those days. Lately, even though I work with Seniors and people who are dealing with sometimes chronic illness, I’ve largely been spared yet the memories remain because once you see death up close and for real everything changes.
Death is hardly ever like the old movies where a person sort of tips their head to one side, after a few last words, and then look like they go to sleep. Death is sometimes traumatic, violent, and bloody, where the life, by virtue of that trauma, is forcibly removed. Death from illness can be long and drawn out, sometimes taking years as the life slowly trickles out from the one who is sick. The body grows weaker and simply can no longer sustain itself. Sometimes death comes quickly with the first and last signs of its arrival only minutes apart. There are as many ways, and combinations of ways, for people to die as there are people and so even if the causes are identical the actual dying may never be.
Death strikes fear in us. Death is the ultimate threat. Yet death is not without its wisdom and the discerning can learn from it if they’re willing to spend the time contemplating it. As people get older, of course, they do this simply by looking in the mirror but one does not have to wait for the obvious signs of their mortality staring back at them to begin to get the larger picture.
You will die and so will I. Outside the intervention of God every single human being will die. It may be sooner, it may be later, but the fight for life will end and you will lose, at least in the short term. I remember seeing a tee shirt that said “Eat right, exercise, die anyways” and that shirt is 100 percent correct. A thought like that can make one morbid, obsessively introspective, and prone to despair because there is truth to it. Life really is short, often troubled, and eventually ends. Or it can set you free if take it just one step further and realize that since life really can be short, often troubled, and does end, there are so many things you think are important, things you’ve been told or tell yourself, that just simply, in the bigger picture, aren’t. As you come to realize this they lose their power over you, they lose the ability to compel and imprison you. It really is true, you can’t take it with you, so why get too upset if you don’t have it now and if you do have it why tie yourself to the chase of getting more instead of sharing? Death will take everything from you that doesn’t truly matter, that’s not eternal, but everything that matters is both good in this life and remains.
The Psalmist asked God to teach him to number his days so he could increase in wisdom. In Orthodoxy we talk about this as the contemplation of our own death not as a morbid thought rooted in brokenness and despair but rather as that which can, properly understood, be the wings we’ve always wanted to fly high and clear from the sad, broken, gravity of the world as it is. The wisest of people live life as if they are dying because, quite frankly, they are, but they do this not as simple thrill seekers trying to pack in as much “life” before the end but rather as souls who realize where, and in Whom, life in its fullness actually occurs and, that in finding that eternal “more” they find life here as well.