Death isn’t like on television. Most people do not die with a wise saying tying the plot line together at life’s last minute. Death is often powerful and sacred, but it is seldom tidy. When I was in training for ministry, one of the chaplains heard a student say some empty pious phrase to a grieving family about “death with dignity.” The chaplain rounded us all up. He was clearly angry. At that point none of us had seen anyone die, so we had no idea what we were talking about. “You know what death with dignity is? Do you? Death with dignity is when they don’t poo on themselves!”
I didn’t sleep that night after the chaplain’s comment. I kept trying to get the horrible image out of my head that he had painted. If death is not the simple clear climax of life like in movies, if people do not die with a dramatic sigh, but instead with a disturbing gurgle, what can any of us say that will be helpful at the time of death- either to the dying, or to those who remain behind in the crater of a former love?
I have ministered long enough to learn that most words do not help at times of death. Words like “God never gives us more than we can carry,” or “She’s in a better place,” are as likely to wound as heal. They are a clear message to the grievers not to share the jagged aspect of their wounds, nor to speak honestly about life’s unfairness. Such words are intended to maintain the numb balance of the comforter, not to address the agony of the griever.
But I have also learned that it can be helpful to a grieving person when friends stop to listen and to simply care. It is often healing for other people who loved the deceased to gather and to share wonderful memories. It is often helpful to think about what we have learned about living from those we have lost. It helps to remember a torch has been passed. But it is vital that we be honest about what has happened. We usually pretend that the world was created to serve our human plans, but life has its own purposes. If we empty ourselves into life as it really is, we can almost always find something to love. And, conversely, if we think we can hold back any of life’s treasure from the river of time we are soon to be devastated.
The secret, I believe, is to realize that life is change, and to say “yes” to the changes of life. This is why babies are the only real priests at a funeral. It is in the restless cries and giggles of the infants that grieving families can remember that life is not confined to human biographies. If we try to understand death in terms of our brief human lives we have to invent monstrous cosmologies to make sense of it all. When babies gurgle at a funeral, the heart knows what the mind cannot. Life goes on.
Life is a shape shifter assuming many forms. The only cure I have discovered for human grief is to realize that the river of time is our home. Our lives and loves allow that river to assume faces for us to love, but the only cure for a broken heart is to love life itself, which is the one lover behind them all.
The colors of a rainbow so pretty in the sky, Are there on the faces of people going by. I see friends shaking hands saying “how do you do.” They’re really saying “I love you.”
I hear babies cry. I watch them grow. They’ll learn more than I’ll never know. And I think to myself what a wonderful world.
“What a wonderful world” -Louis Armstrong
The mind cannot think its way back into this profound depth of living, but the heart knows it at once when at a funeral a baby cries.