Friday, November 07, 2008


(News-Herald, November 6) Many writers are busy picking apart election results. But other stuff has happened in the last week. Big stuff. Things beyond mere politics.

Sometimes when death comes, it comes with a bit of warning. It calls ahead, or at least clears its throat when it walks into the room. But it is in the nature of human tragedy that it can happen at moments that are not just unexpected, but seem just wrong.

Poe thought that there was nothing more awful than the untimely death of a young woman. I don’t doubt that his insight is true, but I’m not sure why.

Part, I suppose, is our tendency to search for narrative, to organize our experiences into stories that make sense. The death of someone who has lived a long and full life is a story we can understand. The death of someone who has made a mess out of his life is sad, but it makes sense. It fits a story.

But the passing of a woman still young, a life of promise ahead of her, doesn’t work. It’s a bad story. It doesn’t make sense.

You can hear it in the voices of people talking about it, struggling to force sense into it. It’s that struggle to make sense that invariably leads well-meaning people to say Really Stupid Things. You would be better off trying to explain the Mind of God to a six-year-old than to stand in line at the funeral home and try to explain to a grieving family member why their loved one’s death is Actually Okay.

Yeah, sure. In another thousand years, we’ll all be dust. In another billion years this planet will be dust in the cold depths of space. So what. We are people of flesh and the moment, rooted here, now, in this time in this place in the universe. And now we are here, and our loved one is not. Long-range perspective does not help.

God has a plan for all of us, and everything in that plan works for the best, even if it’s in ways known only to Him. That may be. I rarely make the mistake of confusing God with Santa Claus—sometimes God demands some pretty hard things of us. I believe we can accept that and still think that some of those things stink. Big time.

A relationship with God can be a big help in these times, but I have also seen it hinder healing, bending people under the weight of grief doubled by a load of guilt because of a mistaken belief that we are always supposed to think that God’s plan is great.

I think any good relationship has room for anger. I think anyone who has had a loved one taken unexpectedly is entitled to be angry at God. I think God gets that. I expect God is still right there after the anger has run its course.

Death is not something we deal with well as a culture. We don’t even like the word—passing, gone, departed, left us, and a dozen other gentle euphemisms cushion us from the subject.

It is oddly surprising, though, that the religious and the not-so-religious agree about the importance of death-- We only have so much time in this world, and we have no way of knowing how much, so we had better make the best use of it we possibly can.

If I were going to live a million years, it doesn’t matter one whit how I spend today. If I knew the people around me were also going to live that long, it wouldn’t matter how I treated them, what I said, what I did, what I paid attention to.

I remember words from Mort Teig’s funeral years ago, to the effect that we should not be sad for the days we had lost, but grateful for the time that he was with us.

Death stinks. It hurts. It is a thief that robs us of precious time with people that we love. But that theft serves as reminder for us to value and cherish the moments we still have. If I had a million todays, they would be as cheap as paper napkins, as common as dirt. But I might have only one more, and that makes it more valuable than gold. I’m not sure being reminded of that is worth the loss of one bright, beautiful, promising life, but if it helps us resolve to honor that life, it’s a start.


Joe said...

Now, how am I supposed to be able to say something snide about THAT column? Instead I feel compelled to go cherish my loved ones, and to feel sorry about the anonymous - or apocryphal - little girl. Well done.

Peter A. Greene said...

I generally leave out names in this sort of column because 1) I hate the idea of intruding on such a personal family thing and 2) I'm hoping it will be able to touch a more general audience.

But this was real. A young kindergarten teacher collapsed of heart failure a few days after delivering her first child.

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