Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I think about death a lot. Not in a morbid, ghoulish way – I know that some are fascinated by dark images or haunted by the unknowable elements of ‘the beyond’, but these things hold no sway for me. I’m not a big fan of our modern-day culture’s obsession with vampires and zombies, either – I’ll admit to having had a passing interest in the Twilight movies, and I can appreciate the ‘noir’ humour of ‘Shaun of the Dead’ – but I find the current fetish with death macabre and gratuitous. And don’t even get me started on the topic of people dressing their kids up as decaying corpses…).
No, when I think about death it’s more in terms of questions about life – particularly my own life. I wonder, What kind of legacy am I leaving? and What memories are we making for our kids? and Am I fulfilling my life’s purpose; am I living out God’s desires for my life? I think about whether or not those I love and care about would know that I love and care about them if I didn’t have any more chances to tell them that I do.
There are times, of course, when questions about death itself come more to the fore – like when loved ones pass away, or when something happens to make me more keenly aware of my own mortality.
Earlier this week I lost a precious aunt. It is a great comfort to me that hers was truly ‘a life well-lived’; the legacy she leaves is in the love and care she bestowed on our family (and her own). She was a uniting force and a faithful Christian; she was a do-er and a pray-er and always full of motivating advice… I will miss her dearly, but I trust that I shall see her again in heaven. Her death brings us to a celebration of her life on earth, and a peace that comes with our faith in the life to come.
Around this time last year I had shoulder surgery, and as I anticipated the operation and its inherent risks (admittedly small – but I was feeling fragile), my thoughts turned as they so often do to life and death. I scribbled a few notes about funeral arrangements, just to spare West the difficulty in the event of my sudden demise. And I wrote down a few other miscellaneous thoughts as I pondered the subject:
What I don’t want is for people to feel embattled or embittered by my passing, whether it be prolonged or quick.
‘Naked I came into this world and naked I shall return’. I was once weak and needy – perhaps I shall end my life in the same manner. But this is no more beneath my dignity than it is for me to have been helpless as an infant at the beginning of my life.
My existence has meaning and purpose because of how I have lived it; the choices I’ve made when I’ve had a choice…
I hope not to be defined by how I leave the world, but by the good I have done (and experienced) while in it.
As I experienced my initial injury and subsequent convalescence, I also pondered the subject of suffering:
Every experience that allows us to relate more to and better love those around us is a gift. What a privilege that, through the process of suffering through our own difficulties, we can be awakened to the needs of others!
Right now there’s an article making the rounds on social media; the tragic story of a 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer who is advocating for people’s right to end their lives ‘on their own terms’. Not so long ago, there was a story in the news about an older Canadian woman with dementia who took her own life before the disease could rob her of her ability to make that decision for herself.
Both of these cases, like so many others, have been centred around the ability of the victims/patients to prevent themselves from having to experience powerlessness and suffering in their final days. Both cases have struck a chord with people and garnered support for the ‘right to die’ campaign.
While I feel immense sympathy for these women in facing heartbreaking diagnoses and making difficult decisions, I cannot subscribe to the idea that the only humane option is to allow people access to drugs/technology/legal options that will allow them to exercise a ‘right to die’.
Do I understand the wish to escape the pain and uncertainty and suffering that accompanies such diagnoses as these women were facing? Yes – of course, yes.
Do I support efforts to mitigate the suffering of people in other phases of life? Yes. I abhor the fact that slavery still exists; I yearn for the day when the vulnerable are no longer subjugated by the powerful; I pray for the alleviation of suffering experienced by those who are sick, who are hungry, who are lonely…
Do I support the use of drugs and technologies in easing the suffering of those in palliative care? Yes. I agree with easing people’s pain and affording them the opportunity to say goodbyes and make peace inasmuch as they are able to do so.
Obviously, preventing suffering and powerlessness are universal concerns. But how far do we take this desire to avoid those difficulties? Isn’t suffering a part of life – and therefore, necessarily, death? Isn’t powerlessness also a part of life and death?
I do not stand in judgement of those who make different decisions than I believe I would in their shoes; but I also cannot champion their choices. I cannot support the claim that the only kindness in this sort of situation is to ‘put people out of their misery’.
Most of us can’t choose the hour or day on which we leave this world. Whether or not that’s something we consider acceptable or not depends a lot on our core beliefs about life and death.
As for me, I believe fundamentally in the sanctity of life – even when life holds suffering.
“…we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” (Romans 5:1(b)-5)
I believe that the grave isn’t the end of the story.
“…and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
I believe that, while death causes us temporary pain and separation from loved ones, it doesn’t get the final say in our lives.
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55)
My own experiences with suffering and death (limited though they may be) have led me to believe that they do serve a greater purpose. When I suffer I am forced to lean closer to those who love me, to hope more fervently in God’s care and mercy, and to anticipate the life to come with a greater sense of peace and joy. And whenever the day comes that I ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’, I know that this too will bring me closer to God – in dying I will enter into his kingdom forever.
I wish that this wasn’t the way of the world; I wish that nobody had to suffer, ever. I wish that death didn’t exist. But suffering and death are inexorable parts of the human experience, and they are not experienced in vain. We may not always see the bigger picture, or appreciate the purpose, but we may trust that God has riches awaiting us (should we choose to accept them) in eternity and these good things will far outweigh any trials we might face in life.
Maybe, then, these questions of life and death are bigger than all of us. And we shouldn’t be the ones answering them.
My answer to those who are dismayed by my stance on the ‘right to die’ campaign is the same as the one I would offer to those who would mourn my passing:
There is peace in Jesus. I have this peace – it shines throughout my life and I pray that it will continue to do so no matter what suffering I endure. And whenever God calls me from this life on earth (though I love it and shall cling to it as long as I am able) I shall taste life everlasting because of the gift of salvation – which is freely offered to all.
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
(Poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye)
This post and farewell hymn are dedicated to the memory of my beloved Auntie Lavinia.
We shall meet again.
(click on the link to hear the song)