Coming to Terms with Death

On more than one occasion I have had the parents of a young child ask me whether or not they should bring their child to the funeral of a loved one. They are worried that the child isn’t ready for something so emotionally demanding as death. In many cases, I think the parent is projecting their own discomfort on the child. The parent is the one who is struggling to come to terms with death.

In most cases I encourage the parent to bring their children. The only way we begin to come to terms with death is by acknowledging its reality. Years ago most people would have grown up in homes where loved ones were dying; death was much more present than it is now. Now we can easily insulate ourselves from death. My mother’s fear of death had an adverse impact on me when my grandmother was near death. I remember her whisking me into the ICU for a few minutes and then whisking me out. Everything surrounding that experience encouraged me to believe that death was to be avoided and only increased my fear of death. It would have been so much more helpful if she had taken me into the ICU and simply sat with me as we spent time with my grandmother. Just sitting there would have helped me discover that death is part of life and not to be feared.  I might even have discovered that the love I had for my grandmother, and the love she had for me, somehow transcends death.

I encourage parents to bring children to funerals, but just being present to death is not enough. We will live in fear of death until we discover that death is not the last word about us. Therefore, the key to the burial service in the Episcopal Church is not just that we acknowledge the death of someone, but that the service proclaims that God is stronger than death. As we grieve the loss of a loved one, we also celebrate that because God raised Jesus from the dead, we too shall be raised. We celebrate that God’s steadfast love for us—not death—is the last word.  I think this is why so many people find our burial services moving and consoling. You see, deep down inside we are all anxious about our mortality, and therefore we need to be reassured on a continual basis that we don’t need to be afraid of death. As we commend a brother or sister into God’s gracious care and keeping, we are commending ourselves as well. We are being reminded that we are in good hands in this life and the next.

St. Paul tells us in Romans 8:39 that nothing—not even death—“can separate us from the love God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Trusting in this love sets us free to live fully. When we live in fear of death, we hold on to life rather than give it away. People often expend all sorts of energy to avoid death. Fearing death people are often driven to make a name for themselves so that they will be remembered when they die. People with resources often want buildings named after them so that they will live on. People suffering from incurable diseases keep trying the next thing to cure the disease and can’t see when it is time to surrender to a good death.

Jesus said that he came that we “may have life, and have it abundantly (Jn1:10).” Jesus wants us to have life here and now, not just in the hereafter. Abundant life here and now is life set free from fear, including the fear of death. Let us acknowledge our mortality. Let us invite our children and others to be present to those who are dying and have died. And let us always remember that God’s steadfast love—not death—is the final word about our lives.