Few things in life are as difficult as the death of a young person. Many is the parent, the mother or the father, with a broken heart. They have lost a daughter or a son and, despite time and perhaps even the consolation of faith, there is a wound that will not heal. There is a reason why this wound is so unrelenting and it lies not so much in a lack of faith in us, as persons, as in a certain lack within nature itself. Nature equips us for most situations, but it does not equip us to bury our own young.
Death is always hard. It severs with a finality and an irrevocability that cauterizes the heart. This is true even if the person who has died is elderly and has lived a full life. Ultimately nothing prepares us, really, to accept the deaths of those whom we love.
But nature has better equipped us to handle the deaths of our elders. We are meant to bury our parents. That is the way nature is set up, the natural order of things. Parents are meant to die before their children and, generally speaking, that is the way it happens. This brings its own excruciating pain. It is not easy to lose one’s parents, just as it is not easy to lose one’s spouse, one’s siblings, or one’s friends. Death always exacts its toll. However, without denying how much this can hurt, nature has equipped us to handle these deaths.
Metaphorically stated, when our elders die, there are circuits in our hardwiring that we can access, open up, and draw new energy through. Ultimately, the death of a fellow adult washes clean and normality returns – for it is natural, nature’s way, for adults to die. That is the proper order of things. One of life’s tasks is to bury one’s parents.
But it is not natural for young people to die. It is not natural for parents to bury their children. That is not the way nature intended things and thus nature has not really equipped us for the task. Again, to utilize the metaphor, when one of our children dies – be it through natural disease, accident, or suicide – nature has not, in our hardwiring, provided us with the circuits we need. It is not, as with the death of our parents, a matter of proper grieving, patience, and time. When one of our children dies, we can grieve, be patient, give it time and still find that the wound does not get better, that time does not heal, and that there is no way to really accept what has happened.
A hundred years ago, Alfred Edward Housman, wrote his famous poem, To An Athlete Dying Young. At one point he tells the young man who has died:
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay.
Housman is correct. Sometimes a young death freezes forever a glory and an honour that, given time, would eventually slip away. To die young is to die in bloom, in the full beauty of life. But that addresses the issue of the young person who is dying, not the grief of those who are left behind. I am not so sure that they, the ones left behind, would say: “Smart lad, to slip betimes away.” Their grief is not so quick to slip away. Nature has not provided them with the internal circuits, the required wiring, to process what they need to process.
Knowing this, of course, does not make things any easier. Death is still death. Understanding how much against nature it is to have to bury one of your own children does not bring that child back. It does not help bring things back to normal since, and this is the point, it is precisely abnormal for a parent to bury a child. What understanding can bring, however, is an insight into why the pain is so deep and so unrelenting, why it is natural to feel so badly, and why no cheap consolation or challenge is very helpful. At the end of the day, the death of one’s own child has no answer.
It is also helpful to know that faith in God, albeit powerful and important, does not take away that wound. It is not meant to. When one of our children dies something has been unnaturally cut off, like the amputation of a limb. Faith in God can be most beneficial in helping us live with the pain and the unnaturalness of being less than whole, but it does not bring back the limb or make things whole again. What faith can do is teach us how to live with the amputation, how to open that irreparable violation of nature to something and Someone beyond us so that this larger perspective, God’s heart, can give us the courage to live with so unnatural a wound.