Today I received the news that a close friend of our family was killed in an industrial accident. Nothing prepares you for that kind of news. Since the phone rang I have prayed. I have prayed for the victim, for his family and loved ones, and I have prayed for faith and hope and for the wisdom to know what to say when I speak at this man’s funeral. What does one say in the face of a death of this kind? What feeble lifeline of consolation can be clung to for perspective and courage? In what words lie the seeds of courage? We have the words of our faith: “He is in God’s hands! We believe in the resurrection and in life everlasting! Life is change not ended! Here we have no lasting city, we are pilgrims destined for an eternal city!” Rich words, true words, but words which when spoken in the face of actual death offer perhaps only an anaemic consolation. They can be said too easily. What can be said? Perhaps nothing should be said at all. To the extent that we have faith, we already know God cares, that our final hope lies beyond this life and that we are destined for resurrection. To the extent that we do not have faith, all words are inadequate to offer hope at the time of death.
Perhaps the consolation and courage we seek at a time like this are found not in words at all, but in a simple presence to each other, in the simple gesture of hugging each other and silently sharing pain and helplessness. Shared pain and helplessness perhaps say all that needs to be said: “I am here. I care. There is nothing I can say to make things better. I know you do not expect me to say anything!” Maybe that’s enough. Perhaps in our stuttering and awkward inability to say anything meaningful, in the helpless silence and pointless small talk, lies the compassion that makes the lifeline through which the nurturing milk of consolation and hope can flow back and forth among us. I think that this is true. The deepest consolation we can offer each other lies in sharing helplessness. Too much is said at funerals. There is a need for less words. But beyond this there is a need for some speaking, for words which can clarify our relationship to the dead person and to each other, for words which can stimulate courage and faith, and for words which can help us celebrate that courage and faith. What words should be shared at the time of death of a loved one? Words that tell us that our hope lies in love, and not primarily in biological life. Psychologist John Powell submits that there are only two potential tragedies in life, and dying young in not one of them.
These are the two potential tragedies: (i) If we go through life and we do not love fully; and (ii) if we go through life and do not tell those whom we love that we love them. In the face of death, our own death or that of a loved one, there is always deep regret. But this regret is not a regret which focuses us back on the sins and shortcomings of our lives and, in the face of these, makes us fear eternal punishment. No. The regret is that so much love has been unlived, unexpressed, unappreciated, badly received and left unreconciled. In the face of death the deepest yearning is for more time, more time for reconciliation, more time to express love more fully. When we speak to each other at the time of a death, our words should express this. They should convey that death challenges us not to become morose, more withdrawn from life. Rather death challenges us to enter life more deeply in love, appreciation and especially in reconciliation. In the world, worse things can befall one than death. Christ warned of this when he said: “What does it profit one to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of one’s soul?” The loss he talked about is the loss of concern, the loss of conscience, the loss of one’s love for others, the loss of the hope for reconciliation. These can be snuffed out by a different kind of death, a bitterness or a selfishness or a dishonesty which kills compassion. When a person dies, if conscience, love and the desire for reconciliation remain, nothing is lost.
A year ago, I stood at the bedside of a young lady, Cathy, who was dying of cancer. She looked at us through tears and said: “This is hard, but I am not bitter, so it’s okay!” She died. New hope was born in us. Her few words were enough. We knew that nothing had been lost. Words need also be spoken to alleviate our guilt, the guilt of those of us who are not dying. Whenever someone close to us dies, we struggle through a deep guilt. Somehow we feel responsible and we think of the hundreds of things we can and should have done. Now it’s too late. We need to be reminded that God loves that person more than we do. God has his own way of writing straight with the crooked lines we have made. He has his own way of bringing this person’s partially frustrated life to fulfilment. God understands that given human nature, accidents, illness, complexity and sin we will always be inadequate. We do our best. For God, in faith, it’s enough. Our God is understanding, compassionate and powerful. Our life is eternal. We need to celebrate this, especially in the face of death. Like Cathy, we need to look at each other through our tears and say: “This is hard, but we’re not bitter, so it’s okay!” Love, conscience, shared life, the desire for reconciliation. In these lie life and hope. A man has died; none of these has been lost.