This time of year is always bittersweet for me. It was seven years ago, today, that my dad died. This date is forever seared in my mind, and what I witnessed when I woke up that Tuesday morning I perhaps will never forget. I’m not typically an emotional person, but in December I’ve had times where I’ve lost it, or almost lost it in public. It’s been especially hard this year in the middle of finals week. I had days where I literally couldn’t do any homework – I just did nothing all day. I don’t know how long this should affect me. I’ve wrestled a lot in the years since then with how to deal with my dad’s death. How should I feel? Should I keep remembering the date? Am I supposed to move on? Am I forgetting him if I don’t remember him or take time to think of him?
What’s the right response to death?
Part of me wants to avoid the word “death.” We can throw it around a lot during the year, but come December it gets hard for me to say it. Part of me didn’t even want to write: “my dad died.” I wanted to put in some sort of euphemism, like: “my dad went to be with the Lord,” or “my dad passed away.” But that doesn’t change what happened. Should I use different language now? Should I try to make it sound like everything is alright? Should I pretend I’m OK?
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about death and a proper response to it this past week or two. Over the years, I’ve reacted differently. At first I tried to ignore it. I ignored the grief. I didn’t even cry much. Certain things would unbottle the pent up grief, and I remember times in Hillsdale when I just sat under a tree and wept. I don’t think bottling grief up is the way to deal with it. Tears can be healing. It can be good to remember, even though it is painful. I think in the years since college I have done a better job of dealing with my dad’s death, of being honest about how I miss him so much at times, and how sometimes I forget to remember him. Sometimes, I just want to hear stories about him – because I’ve blocked out so much from my memory since it was so painful at first. Sometimes, I don’t know what to think or feel. I think that’s OK. We don’t have to know how to respond immediately – or for that matter, ever.
Over the years, I’ve taken comfort in a lot of different stories or passages of Scripture that comfort me in the midst of having lost my father to cancer. Some stand out more during different stages of life. Two quotes, or songs have been on my heart and mind these past few weeks regarding death. I think both the quotes give us a good balance with how to deal with death.
The first one was shared with me by a high school teacher my senior year, after my dad died. This teacher was someone that I looked up to, who in some ways was a father-figure in my mind since I was searching for one in my dad’s wake. I still remember where I was sitting in his office when he shared with me this phrase and insight. It is from 2 Timothy 1:1, in Paul’s greeting where he says that he writes “according to the promise of life in Christ Jesus.” 2 Timothy was probably one of Paul’s last letters that he wrote before he died, and he is mindful that he is finishing the race and that death is close. So he starts off by reminding himself and Timothy that there is a promise of life in Christ Jesus. There is more to this world and this life than we can imagine, and it doesn’t end with death (listen to the song “More” by Andrew Peterson). This life to come is not just hoped for, or wished for – it is promised by a God who is faithful and steadfast. What he purposes, he also performs. His words will come to pass. So that thought in regards to my dad has always been very encouraging. Just as Paul says in Philippians: “to die is gain…it is very much better to be with Christ.” There is joy in knowing that about someone we love. They have the promise of life – life in the midst of their Creator and King. I know my dad is with his Lord and Savior. I know that is very much better. That is a joyful thing to be mindful of – and it does give me hope and comfort.
But the other end of that is realizing that death is hard. Really hard. I think we as Christians can sometimes glorify death and just ignore the pain that it causes. We can make death out to be “no big deal” because of heaven. We say that the “sting of death” is gone, but the truth is — it still really hurts – and it is especially painful to those who are left behind. I think there is a danger in trying to ignore the fact that death is painful – because then when it happens we feel like we can’t cry, like we aren’t supposed to hurt this bad when we continue to grieve over the loss of a loved one. There’s another side of death we need to understand, and I think that the song “Rita” by Bebo Norman captures both sides well. I love the whole song (it’s about a friend that died from cancer at a young age), but the lines that really strike me are in the chorus:
“Cause it was not your time –
That’s a useless line.
A fallen world,
It took your life…”
I think that’s a beautifully raw way of putting into words a truth about death: death is not natural. We can’t say when people die that it was “just their time.” Death is not natural – or at least it shouldn’t be… it wouldn’t be natural if it wasn’t for sin. It was wrong that my dad died when he died. I can still remember my good friend Robbie telling me: “Jason, your dad was not supposed to die.” He was not meant to die. He died because this world is fallen, it is deeply broken. So death is not right, it is the result of sin. One day, death will be done away with, and Christ will have used death itself to redeem the whole world. Jesus will have “led captivity captive,” and used something as evil as death to bring life to all – to fix this broken world. But until then it is still painful. I think we need to understand the brokenness of death. It does hurt. It is the result of a fallen world. It is not natural. So it’s OK to wrestle with it. We can’t just explain away the pain and difficulty of it by pointing to the fact that there’s a heaven. Death is painful, and it is very real. We will all face it and look it in the eyes.
The Bebo Norman song goes on to portray what I think is a good way of dealing with death (for those facing it, and for those left behind):
“But the God who sometimes can’t be found,
Will wrap himself around you,
So lay down…lay down.”
There’s a sense in which we don’t understand death, and it can seem like God is so heartless in letting it happen, in letting us suffer through it. But the truth is that even though we can’t see him, God is there in the midst of it. One of the best pictures I have ever heard of this is when someone was telling the story of a scene in a Nazi prison camp (I can’t remember who or where I read this at the moment). Basically, there are a couple of people watching a young boy being led to execution (either shot or hanged, I can’t remember which), and after the young boy dies, one of the bystanders leans over and asks a question. He says, “Where is God in that?” And the other guy answers: “He’s right there, right on the gallows.” In other words, Jesus was not foreign to death. He hung on the cross. He, of all people, who didn’t deserve death, died one of the most gruesome deaths. He entered into our broken world to redeem it. I think that’s where we can find hope in the midst of death. Our Savior is not unmindful of it, he is not absent in it. We may not see him, but he is there – he “wraps himself around you” in death. Knowing this we can lay down, or let that loved one lay down and try to find comfort in “the God who sometimes can’t be found.”
It’s been helpful for me to find a balance between these two ideas about death. There is great hope in the resurrection and the fact that there is new life after death, but death is also very real and very painful. If we go to one extreme, we make death a small thing and forget that it is a sign of the fallen and broken world we live in. Jesus died – and that was an evil thing. Death is a big deal, it is wrong. We need to recognize that and wrestle with that. But if we go to the other extreme we can despair of life and get buried in grief and sorrow. Death is not the victor – Jesus is. There’s a tension that needs to be held, and sometimes it just doesn’t make sense and we have to simply trust God in it.
I hope that makes sense. I don’t have this figured out. I don’t think it’s the answer to death, or that it makes everything go away. There is no intellectually satisfying response that makes all the problems of pain just go away. I don’t think there is an answer to death and suffering. I think the answer is a person: Jesus Christ. A person is better than an answer. That’s what God gave us in response. That’s been really helpful for me in the midst of losing my dad and wrestling with his death for the past 7 years.
You don’t get over it – the scars never go away. One day they will, with new creation – but not yet. There’s no answer that satisfies or makes everything alright. It still hurts to think that my dad is gone. I still wish he was here. In some ways, it’s not right that he isn’t here anymore. But that’s what we all must wrestle with. We have to live in that present tension and cling to the person of Jesus Christ in the midst of death.
C.S. Lewis closes out his book, A Grief Observed (about his wrestling with his wife’s death) in a similar manner:
“When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of “No answer.” It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though he shook his head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, “Peace, child; you don’t understand.”
…we cannot understand. The best is perhaps what we understand least”