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Befriending Death

Befriending Death

One who does not embrace death will not know life at all. ~ Sadhguru

I was ten years old when my dad took me driving for the first time. I climbed onto the bench seat of his well-worn white two- door truck, and we headed south to the abandoned dairy roads a few towns away — just him and me. When we found a safe place to stop, my dad invited me to slide over from the passenger’s seat to sit on his lap. My eyes filled with wonder; my big moment had arrived. I clenched the black leather steering wheel as my dad gently pushed on the gas, and we were off. An exhilarating rush of adrenaline filled my body as I took in the view from the driver’s seat for the very first time. I felt powerful behind the wheel: a small taste of freedom, a glimpse into a future world waiting for me. One day my legs would be long enough to reach the pedals below. One day I’d be old enough to take the wheel and go wherever I wanted to go.

Then, as life would have it, that day came. I grew up, got my license, left home, went to college, fell in love, and got married — yet somehow, as my husband took the steering wheel of our lives, I found myself metaphorically sitting in the passenger seat all over again. Most days I didn’t mind my view from the passenger’s seat; I was grateful for our predictable and stable life. We were doing meaningful work within our ministry at the church, and I was soaking up extra time with our three sons as a stay-at-home mom. Then nearly eight years into building a life together, everything changed. Andrew was gone, and life invited me to slide into the driver’s seat once again. This time as an adult with a heavy burden of responsibility, a heart full of grief, an abyss of possibilities expanding across the horizon, and three precious boys shouting from the back row, “Mommy, where are we going next?”

The Unknown

The road ahead isn’t always clear. During our brief time here, some seasons will lead us into the unknown. The unknown can look different for everybody. For me, I’ve encountered the unknown in life after loss. Perhaps it’s the same for you, or maybe you’ve experienced the death of a dream, a relationship, a marriage, or even a job. Your predictable course went off the rails, and you’ve found yourself staring out over an endless, intriguing, yet terrifying abyss.

This is where things get interesting. The way I see it, we have two options: We can choose to let go of what was and embrace the unknown of what is, or we can cling to a life that’s no longer viable. Option one invites new life to begin where the old life ended, while option two entraps us in one long, drawn-out death.

Life never really begins again if we hold fast to what can no longer be.

We could say option two keeps us “camped out in the cemetery” — alive but surrounded by death. To rebuild beautiful, it’s essential to embrace death as a pathway to new life.

Embracing Physical Death

We often avoid things that make us uncomfortable, and for many of us, death is at the top of that list. Many Westerners have especially lost touch with the rituals of death, and for some the topic of death is often private or hidden.

I’ve been around the mystery of a deceased human body only twice in my life. Once at a wake, and a second time in the hospital room as I watched my husband exhale his last breath. Although the circumstances of both situations were vastly different, my response was the same. I was highly emotional and extremely uncomfortable. The emptiness of my loved one’s body was too painful to witness, and everything inside of me wanted to bolt out of the room. Maybe I have a slight case of necrophobia, or perhaps I may feel disconnected from death because no one ever taught me how to embrace it.

Conversations surrounding death are often considered “morbid,” so we tend to evade the topic completely. Just last night I was sitting on the sidelines of my son’s soccer game, and right beside me was another mom I had just met. In between cheering on our sons, we were engaging in some small talk. Prior to Andrew’s death, I didn’t mind small talk, as it came with the territory of being a pastor’s wife. These days, it’s something I’ve come to abhor. At first this new mom and I exchanged the usual: “How many kids do you have? Where do your kids go to school? How long have you lived in town?” Then came the kicker.

Soccer mom: “How about your husband? Where’s he?”

Me: “He actually passed away, so it’s just me.”

Soccer mom: “Oh, I’m sorry about your husband.”

Me: “Thanks.”

End of conversation.

This is a prime example of how we avoid talking about death in America. We often don’t know how to respond, so we quickly move on to talk about something more pleasant. There are so many follow-up questions the soccer mom could have asked me in that moment. For example: “How did he die? How long has he been gone? How are you holding up without him? How are your kids holding up?” But instead she turned to the woman sitting next to her and asked, “So, how was your vacation?”

Now, I’m not here to shame a soccer mom. She was so sweet and totally caught off guard by my answer to her question. The point I’m getting at is that she, like many of us, has learned how to dance around death as if it doesn’t exist. Sadly, if we spend our whole lives dancing around death instead of learning how to embrace it, we will miss a significant piece of life’s essence.

Ways to Befriend Death

From the moment we are born, life is one long farewell. We are all learning how to die. When we embrace this reality we learn how to appreciate the beauty of life without clinging to it. It’s all “here today and gone tomorrow” (Job 4:20 MSG). Our experience with loss should change us. Loss should change the way we see, the way we surrender, and ultimately, the way we live. To experience tragedy and move through life unchanged would be an even greater defeat. As we learn to befriend the subject of death, here are some of the ways we can lean in.

1. Engage the Conversation

Perhaps the first step toward embracing death is simply creating space for vulnerable conversations about it. Just last week as I was out to dinner with my friends, the topic of death came up. Instead of shying away from the subject, we went around the table and each took a turn sharing about the fears we have surrounding death. It was a raw and emotional conversation, and many of us were speaking our true fears aloud for the very first time. Was it uncomfortable for some? Absolutely. But the gift we receive through embracing death and engaging in conversations like this now is a heart more prepared to welcome the reality of death when it comes.

2. Prepare Now for the End of Life

When Andrew was alive, we hardly ever talked about death. When the topic did come up, he usually joked about how he was going to die first. We were young and naïve enough to think that death was something we would deal with decades down the road. But then, when he died just a few months after his thirtieth birthday, our family was utterly unprepared. We were forced to plan his memorial service without any of his input. The songs we sang, the plot we chose at the cemetery, and even the suit we sent to the mortuary for his burial were decisions we made without him. This experience has opened my eyes to the importance of considering my own death now. Where do I want to be laid to rest? What songs, verses, poems, or letters do I want my loved ones to read? How do I want my family to respond to my death? One of the most loving things you can do for your family is to answer some of these questions now so that no one is left filling in the blanks when you die. If this is something that’s important to you, write it all down — every last detail — and then tuck it away in a special place where your loved ones will know to find it.

3. Hold Space for the Uncomfortable

If talking about death or preparing for your own death is uncomfortable, then holding space for the bereaved is most likely uncomfortable too. Many of us have failed miserably to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). Oftentimes we don’t know what to say, or we disengage completely out of fear of saying the wrong thing. Perhaps the best thing we can do is to shift our focus from showing up with an agenda to simply showing up with love. Here are some words we can always use:

“I don’t know what to say, but I’m right here, and I love you.”

I was fresh in my journey with grief when one of my closest friends came to my home to spend the afternoon with me and my boys. At the end of the day, after I finally got all three of my sons to sleep, I walked out into the living room and collapsed on the floor. As I loudly wept and cried out in pain, my friend curled up beside me, wrapped her arms around me, and wept too. She didn’t try to manipulate the moment, she didn’t try to find the perfect words, and she didn’t try to make me feel better or take away my pain; she simply held me and shared in my suffering. Although she may have felt uncomfortable or unsure of what to do, her loving presence spoke volumes.

Excerpted with permission from Rebuilding Beautiful by Kayla Stoecklein, copyright Kayla Stoecklein.

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Your Turn

Are you holding onto what can no longer be? The death of someone we love, the death of a dream, or the death of the life we hoped for can turn us upside down! How do you handle death? One of the ways we can love our bereaved friends is just to be there for them and not say anything. Are you ready to be that kind of friend? ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full