Stories that Matter

The Finality of Death and What They Don't Tell You …

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My mother’s funeral was the first I ever attended.

I was young, in my early 30’s, with a five and nine year-old, and I didn’t quite know what hit me. I even had the audacity to believe I was prepared.

We’d had plenty of time. We knew the inevitable, knew the odds were that one day we’d be at this place, knew it would be the better outcome. So you straighten up, smile stoically and do your best to bear it.

But … you can never prepare for death.

That’s a crock. That’s the first thing they don’t tell you.

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My mom loved flowers, roses in particular. Every spare moment she had, you’d find her in the garden, weeding, planting, bringing things back to life. She was a life giver. Probably the most unselfish person I’ve ever known. I’m not sure how you get there, whether it comes naturally or you really have to work at it. But it never seemed to me like she had to, it was just who she was. She gave and gave and gave, and you think a person that good should have good things in return, but life gave back with a vengeance – a stroke that left her paralyzed on one side and unable to speak or even feed herself for months. I’m going to hazard a guess and say she was still in her 50’s at the time.

And I got angry. I was 17 you see, and so not ready for that interruption to my life. I displayed the opposite of her unselfishness in many ways. At that age I suppose you don’t see that life really isn’t all about you. But she was stubborn, my mom. Her determination to live and live well was probably what saved her, saved us all. She just got on with it. If you’ve ever met a soul like that, I don’t have to tell you … you simply stand back in awe. It’s all you can do.

I wonder now if the reason I don’t give up easily is because she never did. You know the saying, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way…” well, damn if that woman didn’t have the will. I think she had more than most, actually. God knew she’d need it.

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Death is not fair. 

They don’t tell you that either. We’re told to accept it. And move on.

They say she suffered well. Who wants that on their headstone?

I get it. Yeah, she did, she suffered, but did she have to? Did she have to live the last few years of her life ‘suffering well’ ? I don’t know. But that’s the way it was.

No, death is not fair. But then again, neither is life.

Grace, faith, courage and the stubbornness to stare down death and whisper “Bring it.”

Because at the end, when you know it’s coming and you know where you’re going, I guess that’s the only way to do it.

And maybe … death is a gift.

Now you’re shaking your head perhaps, but hang on. Here’s where it gets tricky. Because babies die and toddlers get hit by cars and cancer comes and leaves a young family without a mother and children grow up without their grandmothers, and we lose our fathers and our mothers and we lose … We lose, and when everything we love is taken from us, how … ?

Because of the promise.

And maybe you don’t even believe in God, but for those who do, death is the beginning of life. We are promised a new life, and we cling to that because it is the gift of hope.

Who wouldn’t want that?

And so when you mourn, when you sit through the long dark night and wonder if the dawn will ever come, somehow there is comfort. Somehow you know that you know that you know, and He is with you. Yes, even in the darkest hour. Even through the anger and the pain and the tears and the questions, even when we do not understand. Even when we reject the faith we should be clinging to. 

Especially then.

I’ve had many opportunities to mourn since my mother’s death. Opportunity is an odd word, but I believe it fits. Because when you’re given that kind of pain, it allows you the chance to step back, consider what has come and gone, and what is still to come. And how you will live, and love, in the face of great loss.

It’s okay to hate it. 

It is. Yes, we’re supposed to be strong. (Really? Says who?) Yes, we’re supposed to accept that sometimes, in the wake of suffering, it is for the best. And they say remember, God is still in control.

That doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to hurt.

Grieve. Question. Scream through the silence if you must, because we’re human and we’re frail and we don’t have super powers … tears are good at times. Sorrow is necessary … but don’t stay there.

Joy comes in the morning.

It’s true. I can tell you that now. There have been times, many, many times, when I would have said something different. I would have told you where to go with your joy and what to do with it when you got there. But I’m older now and maybe just a bit wiser and I know … peace.

Death cannot overshadow life.

Acceptance comes eventually, and we learn to live again. Adjustments are made. Life is never quite the same. But we are still here, still breathing, still able to love those around us, and so we do. By the grace of God.

We do.

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9 Comments

  1. Jennifer Zarifeh Major on March 24, 2015 at 10:13 am

    Love. Love. LOVE this!!

    You are so wise, and yes, I cannot imagine the price you paid to become this wise.

    • Cathy West on March 24, 2015 at 10:14 am

      Wisdom, unfortunately, always comes at great cost.
      But I’m beginning to believe it’s worth it.

  2. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on March 24, 2015 at 10:33 am

    One thing that they don’t tell you is that death…YOUR death…will be considered a gift to some of those around you.

    “I’m praying for your release. I HATE watching you suffer.”

    “I want to have GOOD memories, and not memories of your suffering.”

    And knowing that such individuals have definite life-after-death plans…their life after your death…I’m not sure of the words that cover that.

    I guess the takeaway is that dying people still, generally, want to live, and marginalizing them because their presence has become uncomfortable or inconvenient is lacking in some aspects of Christian charity.

    To put it mildly.

    • Cathy West on March 26, 2015 at 5:06 pm

      Andrew, maybe it’s that nobody has the right words. And nobody wants to watch a loved one suffer or know that there is nothing we can do to ease that pain. It’s an unfair plan all around, isn’t it? But perhaps the lesson is to live each day like it were our last, do and say the things we need to now, don’t wait. You have more insight on the subject than most, but you are still wanted and loved and needed here so don’t forget that.
      Praying for good moments. 🙂

      • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on March 26, 2015 at 6:09 pm

        There is a lot of truth in that, Cathy…what can the right words possibly be?

        I try to balance living as if the end is here with a sense of purpose for the future, and I’m struggling. After the events of the last week rather viciously underlined the situation, it’s easy to say, “well, what’s the use…I won’t see this job to its end, and no one will carry it forward for me…so, why?”

        The severe hope, though, is that I can still bend circumstances to my will, and acting in the belief that I will prevail is a large part of that ‘bending’.

        And I do know that I have a place, and am loved in this community. It’s one of the things that has kept me going, the support and the humbling expressions of appreciation.

  3. gene on March 24, 2015 at 2:03 pm

    Wonderful post! In my mind there are two absolute truths about death: One being that it’s the portal to new life and second, we don’t live with and love someone all our lives and not have their death hurt.
    I think grief is a process where after the initial denial and shock period, we spend the first year dealing with milestones, like the first birthday, first Christmas, etc. I think in the second year, on that second birthday without them, reality sets in and we confirm in our hearts that they are never coming back. The third year we begin the process of learning how to live our lives in their absence. We step out and healing begins but we never completely get over the loss, we just become accustomed to it. There are no magic words, no sure fire healing programs and everyone’s grief is different.
    We shouldn’t feel like we need to pretend to be strong examples of faith. While we can appreciate the notion that our dear loved one is in a better place, we are left behind to figure out how to live this life without them. The worst mistake anyone can make is to hurry through a process that actually can take years to come to grips with. I think God appreciates our being an honest mess before Him instead of pretending to be a confident saint.
    We will never again be the person we once were, but we can at some distant point emerge from it all.

    • Cathy West on March 26, 2015 at 5:07 pm

      Exactly. 🙂 Thanks, Gene.

  4. Jeanne Takenaka on March 25, 2015 at 12:28 am

    Cathy, thank you for such an honest, hope-filled post. Thanks for giving permission to be angry, to work through sorrow, to question. It seems like this is a part of the grieving process, and taking the time to work through the emotions can help us come to that place where we can walk in joy.

    That reminder–Death cannot overshadow life? There is hope in that truth. Thank you for sharing your wisdom, friend.

    • Cathy West on March 26, 2015 at 5:09 pm

      Jeanne, it’s a slow process, and there are days when I still get it all wrong, but I am learning, above all, to be gentle with myself. It’s amazing that even all these years later, the grief still comes when you least expect it. But I guess that means she was much loved, so it’s a good thing. Joy does come. Sometimes also, when you least expect it. 🙂

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