I'll preface those thoughts with this one: when I first joined the ranks of Christianity, I naively thought that all my problems with death were over. I sometimes looked at other people as an alien species when they spoke with sadness of someone dying. "But that person has gone to heaven," I thought. "Shouldn't we be cheering that he's made it to the place we all want to be? Do we really believe this stuff or not?"
Of course, I was young and stupid (not as young as I sound there, though entirely as stupid -- I'm embarrassed to admit that I was 29) and I hadn't experienced much death at all. I still had my parents, all four of my grandparents, and death was still something that happened mostly to other people. I grew up, for the most part, without funerals. Then in college, my boyfriend's brother died in a terrible car accident. The whole thing seemed selfishly surreal to me: I'd been on the brink of breaking up with him, but when his brother died, of course I couldn't bring myself to do it. Dave's was the first "real" funeral that I remember, and ironically, it was in the same town to which I would later move, and in the same parish where I was eventually received into the Catholic Church.
My first truly close encounter with death was in the same sacred space in which I later embraced True Life Himself.
What I remember most about my boyfriend's brother's funeral is crying my eyes out at the waste of such a young life (two young lives -- it was a double funeral, though I'd never met the other boy who died at the hands of that drunk driver) and feeling dazed through the luncheon afterward. I didn't understand how we were supposed to eat, laugh and talk as if it were a party and everything was okay. I didn't know "how to act." And I really didn't understand all that food.
Since then, I've said good-bye to all four of my beloved grandparents. Atticus and I have seen old college friends lose their six-year-old daughter to a heartbreaking blood disease. Another old friend from college was in a car accident in which his ten-year-old daughter was critically injured and her best friend died. Last month, an old friend from church lost his adult son very suddenly due to an undiagnosed medical condition. Of course there have been other encounters as various acquaintances and relatives have passed away. We've lost several babies through miscarriage. Three months ago, we lost my husband's mother. She is the first of my children's grandparents to pass away.
Last week, when my friend (Jack) lost his father to cancer, yet another part of my history died. I still smile when I remember how Jack, Sr. used to call me "that little girl" (as in, when a girl showed up at the house to hang out with Jack his junior year of high school, his dad would page him with, "Jaaaaack! That little girl is here to see you.")
So. Death is no longer a mysterious stranger to that little girl. I've seen and felt plenty of it, thank you very much. And my children have been introduced to it at a much younger age than I was. And the things I've learned are these:
+ While death may not be a mystery to a Christian, we are weak creatures who deal with it haltingly. No matter how glorious is the new dwelling place of our friends and family, we miss them. And it hurts. And we cry. Jesus wept, too, so we're in pretty good company.
+ No matter how young children are, they are deeply affected by loss. At confession the other day, Anne's penance (assigned by our brand-new-assistant priest who had no way of knowing she could still be raw) was "to pray for all those who are recently departed." She came out of the confessional, knelt in a pew and started sobbing about her grandmother. And she and Betsy were so upset by the idea of "another funeral" that I left them with a friend when we attended Jack, Sr.'s last week.
Children feel things. They feel them deeply. And their feelings about grandmothers and funerals will get all tied up in their feelings about losing two hamsters in one year, and having lots of brothers and sisters in heaven and it will be hard to sort out exactly what's making them cry, but one thing is certain: they just need to be held. Just like we do sometimes.
+ And all that food (as everyone else already knew) = love
Death will not, does not, have the final word. In spite of our sobs and our loneliness, our trials, fears and pains, death's sting will not, in the end, win.
Because Christ has conquered death, we can say:
I will rejoice with joy in the Lord,
and my spirit shall be joyful in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation
and wrapped me round with the mantle of justice,
like a bridegroom decked with a crown,
like a bride adorned with her jewels
~~ Isaiah 61:10