Has death really lost its sting?
Theologically I want to say, “yes” – but then I have to ask: “what do I call this pain I feel because of death?”
What do I call this pain I feel when someone asks me how many siblings I have and I start to say “three” but then hesitate because I remember that one is now gone?
What do I call this pain I feel when I get onto Facebook and it suggests “you have memories with Christina Shippey today” and I pause before clicking the link?
What do I call this pain I feel when someone tells me that they’re so glad that the chemo worked for me and that they’re happy I’m still alive, but all I can think of is that someone else isn’t alive anymore?
What do I call this pain I feel when I read in my family text message thread “You removed Christina Shippey from this conversation” and recognize that her face will never pop up again on my phone?
Is that the sting of death? Because it certainly feels like a sting.
It feels like a sting that never goes away but just comes to the surface when something causes me to remember Christina. I try to stay on guard against the sting – but it comes up in the most random of places.
Sometimes it’s books. Christina loved to read and we often talked about books that we loved and gave each other recommendations. There’s the last book she recommended for me to read, called The Jesus I Never Knew, that I want to read so badly, but every time I try to pick it up I feel the sting. The sting that once I read this book I won’t be able to hear why she loved it so much. The sting that once I finish that book I will never be able to read another recommendation of hers. So I just leave it sitting on my shelf.
Sometimes it’s games. Christina and I played this game on our phones called “PEAK,” which is a brain training game that lets you challenge people to beat your scores. Christina was always crushing me at the language games, and while I was better at the math games, I’d constantly be playing so I could beat her high scores. Today, the app asked to be updated, and I felt the sting of wanting to beat her score – but knowing that she’d never be able to play again to return the favor. I haven’t played it since she died, but I also can’t bring myself to delete the app from my phone or even check on the scores to see who won more games. Every time I swipe past the icon I feel the sting.
Sometimes it’s days. The holidays are the hardest. We now have two empty spots at our table in my family – two people who will never join us for Thanksgiving again, two less people to buy gifts for on Christmas. I now have two more dates to remember – December 17th, and now today – June 22nd. Dates I don’t really want to remember, but will never forget because of the sting. The sting that reminds me that it’s been a full year without my sister now.
So when people say, “O Death, where is your sting?” – I want to say, “it’s right here.” I know I’m not alone in this.
The Sting of Sadness
Now, people will tell me: “She’s in a better place now.” “She doesn’t feel any more pain now.” Or “she’s with Jesus, where she really wanted to be.” Yes, I know, that’s all good and well – but that doesn’t make the sting go away. The sting isn’t that she’s hurting, the sting is that I’m hurting. I’m not sad for her, I’m sad for missing her. I’m happy for her, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t still be sad that she’s gone. The sadness feels like the sting of death.
In a book titled O Death, Where is Thy Sting? Alexander Schmemann writes, “Christ weeps at the grave of his dead friend Lazarus—what a powerful witness! He does not say, “Well, now he is in heaven, everything is well; he is separated from this difficult and tormented life.” Christ does not say all those things we do in our pathetic and uncomforting attempts to console. In fact he says nothing—he weeps.” I’ve been thinking about that a lot – thinking about the sadness of Jesus and his weeping. He weeps even knowing that he’s going to raise Lazarus from the dead. In fact, as many will point out, Jesus is visibly angry with death in this passage. It’s as if Jesus himself feels the sting of death here and it makes him angry – and yet, it also makes him weep.
But sometimes I don’t want him to weep. Instead, I want him to destroy death. John Donne said, “Death thou shalt die,” but I want to ask why God hasn’t killed death already? Isaiah 25:8 says that God “will swallow up death forever” but I want to ask why he hasn’t done so already? I don’t want Jesus to weep – I want him to fix things. I don’t want Jesus to weep, I want him to make things better. I don’t want Jesus to weep, I want him to explain why my sister had to die so young.
But “he says nothing—he weeps.”
One of the most encouraging things anyone has said to me since Christina died was something along the lines of: “Jason, I’m so sorry for your loss and I don’t have much to say, but I wanted to let you know that I think God wept when Christina died.” My theological mind wanted to explain away this comment, to say that God couldn’t weep because he was happy that Christina was in heaven now and so he couldn’t be sad at the same time – but it made me weep, and then the person wept with me too. When I wanted God to take away the sting of death, instead, he felt the sting of death himself – and he came near and wept with me. Honestly, I can’t think of anything more beautiful, even though it still hurts.
I still want death to die. I still want my sister to live here again with me. I still want the sting of death to go away. I still want an explanation for why Christina had to die in the first place. I actually still think all of those things will happen one day – and yet, right now, I’m content that God felt the sting of death – that Jesus wept, and I think, continues to weep with me over the sting of death.