Some Monday Musings On… Death (Yes, Death)

—1—

I’m (kind of) picking up my “Monday Morning Miscellany” idea again here because I’ve got another case of I-had-plenty-to-put-in-a-7-Quick-Takes-Friday-but-couldn’t-stay-awake-to-write-it. I don’t know whether it’s my schedule lately or the fact that I’m moving deeper into the third trimester, but I can’t remember the last post I wrote that I didn’t fall asleep on at some point. Including this one.

Hmm… and I wondered where these boys got it…

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But this Monday’s collection of miscellany didn’t turn out to be so miscellaneous after all. As I started writing, I was surprised to realize just how much of what’s on my mind right now pertains to death. (Yes, DEATH.)

So here I go with some sober musings for this Monday: tragic deaths at the Mall in Columbia, the sadness of a death in the family, an NPR piece on a “death class,” remembering an experience at a cemetery in Ireland, the delicate task of explaining death to very little ones, and the (BIG) question of life after death.

What a cheerful way to begin the week!

—2—

I’ve got to start with this weekend’s big, awful news from our corner of the world: three people (including the shooter, it seems) were shot and killed inside the Mall in Columbia. It’s yet another senseless, heartbreaking episode of violence to splash across the national headlines. But this one is ours.

This is the mall we typically go to. I’m not familiar with the exact store where those poor people were killed, but I know that it’s very near the store where I buy my boys’ shoes… and the Starbucks I stop in for a pick-me-up… and the carousal my boys love to ride at the beginning of our shopping trips. So this one hit home.

Even so, (and I hate to say it) I reacted to the news with resignation. I was nervous to know whether any of my loved ones were at the mall and in harm’s way; I was concerned for all who were there at the time, whether I knew them or not. I prayed. I worried. But I wasn’t as surprised as I might have been. And my reaction was not as dramatic as it might have been.

The fact is, we’ve had enough of these tragedies in the U.S. in the past few years (not to mention the multitude of horrors that have happened abroad) that they’re no longer surprising to me. Even, apparently, when they’re in my own back yard.

The fact is, these tragedies lurk in my mind just about every time I head out in public – and certainly every time I head to the mall. That mall. For years now, I’ve walked into that mall aware that something like this could happen. So I only go when I have a particular errand I need to accomplish. I don’t stay long. I look around for exits. I think up strategies to keep my children as safe as I can.

Isn’t that awful?

It is. It’s sad. It’s a shame. But it’s simply an acknowledgement of the world we live in. And it’s only an echo of how so many people in other parts of the world live every day: in insecurity, in fear, perhaps in resignation. It is what it is.

—3—

It’s been a sad couple of weeks at our home, all-around. Two weeks ago yesterday, my husband’s stepfather died.

Brennan’s parents divorced when he was 10 or 11 years old and his mother remarried a couple of years later. Then when Brennan was barely 14, his father died. Similar situations have probably made for more than a few challenging stepfather/stepson relationships. But fortunately for our family, that’s not what happened with Ed and Brennan.

Brennan recalls his father’s memory with fondness and I know he wishes that he could have gotten to know him better. But he’s also very grateful for Ed’s presence in his life. I am too. Ed is the man who taught my husband about responsibility, about devotion to his wife, about a million little practical things that people need to learn in order to be independent adults. Brennan attributes part of who he is today to the lessons he learned from Ed.

As I mentioned over the summer and again on Veterans Day, Ed was a veteran of World War II who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was wounded just before the war ended. I wrote then:

With my own parents still in their ‘50’s, it was more than a little difficult for me to get used to having a (step)father-in-law who is a member of the “greatest generation.” And I have to admit that, having seen him only once or twice a year for the past six years, I don’t know Ed very well. But I know that my husband loves and respects him. And I know that he has lived a long and interesting life, with his fair share of pain.

Some of it, of course, can be traced to his service in that awful war. Shortly before it ended, Ed found himself in Passau, Germany. In trying to rescue his sergeant, who had been shot, Ed was himself shot in the lung and the arm. He earned the bronze star for his actions. And he has lived with the repercussions of his injuries ever since…

Whenever I see an elderly person, particularly one who looks weak or ill, I wonder what kind of a life they’ve lived. I wonder at the events and the change they must have seen in their lifetime. Whenever I see an old man wearing one of those hats that veterans wear – the kind that denotes the ship they served on – I envision the young, strong man he must have been. I don’t know what to say or do, except to show a little kindness and maybe a little love. I want to ask, but I don’t want to intrude. I want to thank, but I don’t want to sound trite. So mostly I just wonder. And I say a little prayer.

With Ed, I know something of his story. But I still don’t know what to say. So I show some kindness and some love. I give him a hug and a kiss. I encourage the boys to do the same for their “Baba Ed.” Every once in a while, I have the boys color him a picture and we stick it in the mail. And I pray.

Ed had been seriously ill for some time and confined to a nursing home for a couple of years, so his death didn’t exactly come as a surprise. Still, it is an ending, and it is sad. It’s downright heart-breaking for Brennan’s mother, Hilde, who loves Ed with an attachment and a devotion that I’ve seldom witnessed.

So if you’re the praying type, we would greatly appreciate a few prayers at this sad time: for the repose of Ed’s soul, for comfort and strength for Hilde, and for peace for Ed’s children, step-children, and grand-children. Thank you.

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—4—

I heard a fascinating piece on NPR last week. It was about a college course on death. Students in the class visit a funeral home, a cemetery, and other places that deal with death on a regular basis. They learn and talk about death in its most physical, scientific senses and also in more abstract, emotional ones. They talk and think about their own personal experiences with death.

What an idea.

We’re fortunate to live in a time and place where we can go years – maybe most of our lifetimes – without having an intimate experience with death. Due to good sanitary conditions, abundant food, and advanced medical practices, we can go through our lives expecting that we’ll make it safely through our own births, our childhoods, our sometimes-wild youths, our pregnancies and deliveries, our illnesses, and even our advanced years.

This is an incredible blessing. Yet is also removes us from one of the most basic realities of life: all of us will die. You, me, those we love – all of us.

So when we do encounter death, I think it can be rather more shocking and damaging to us than it’s been to those who have lived throughout most of human history, those who were more used to death than we are. I think it can also contribute to a lack of appreciation for just how precious life is.

Maybe it’s something we should work on.

When my husband and I were in Ireland for our honeymoon, we had the incredible opportunity to visit with some of his father’s cousins, who still live there. (Brennan’s grandfather came from Ireland.) Most unfortunately, one of the cousins had died just days before, from breast cancer. I believe she was in her early ‘50’s. We were fortunate enough to be able to pay our respects at her grave, as well as those of Brennan’s great-grandparents. While in the cemetery where his cousin had just been buried, we saw a young woman drive up, hop out of her car, walk over to the cousin’s grave, leave a flower, and pause for a few minutes in prayer. She then proceeded briskly away.

I was struck by the experience. How often do we see (or do) that here? Sure, we’re somewhat familiar with cemeteries from the burials we’ve attended. And if we’ve lost someone we love dearly, we may make repeat trips to visit their graves. But do we make such a practice common? Do we make a quick stop at the grave of a friend or acquaintance on a random Thursday, just to pray and pay our respects? When I remarked on the young woman’s visit, another of Brennan’s cousins said that such behavior is common in those parts, even for young people. She said something to the effect of “For the Irish, death is a very real and present thing.”

—5—

Ed’s death, of course, has prompted us to talk about death with our boys for the first time. Our two-year-old seems oblivious to the discussions, but our three-year-old has had a lot of questions: “Will I die? Will you die? Is our cold yike Gwanpa Ed’s?”

It’s been interesting and a little scary to answer his questions. It’s a challenge to explain death in a way that a three-year-old will understand, without making such a sensitive little guy too nervous. I keep having to tell him that yes, we will all die someday. Everything that lives will die. But Grandpa Ed was very old and very sick, and we are neither of those things. Hopefully we’ll all live a long, long, long, long, long time yet. And no, Grandpa Ed did not have our cold.

I’m also having to make my attempts at explaining to him what happens to people after they die. I know that a lot of people will tell their children (and really, often themselves) that when the people we love die, they go straight to heaven and become angels that will watch over us. But I see that as an over-simplified, fairy-tale kind of explanation. I don’t want to feed it to my children now, only to disabuse them of it when they’re older and starting to wrestle with moral questions. Because I don’t think heaven is a given for anyone.

I’m Catholic, and though I am no theologian, I think I’m in-line with Church teaching when I say that heaven and hell are not assigned to us “at the pearly gates.” And they’re certainly not assigned as popular culture seems to: everyone we love gets into heaven, while everyone who’s really, really bad, like murderers and child abusers, goes to hell. I think that if we’re truly close to God, we get to be with him after we die, and we call that heaven. If, however, we’ve removed ourselves from God, we are without him after we die, and we call that hell. I also believe that prayers count, even for the dead. I believe that it’s worthwhile to pray for our beloved dead, that they may become ever closer to God. I hope people will do so for me when I die.

So, what do I tell my boy? I tell him that we really hope that Grandpa Ed gets to be with God in heaven. And I invite him to pray with me to that end.

—6—

Somehow, I don’t think that’s quite the way to end this post. So let me just draw your attention back to that NPR piece: “‘Death Class’ Taught Students A Lot About Life.” I hope you’ll follow the link and listen to the story. It’s just five and a half minutes long. Perhaps it will pique your interest, like mine, in reading journalist Erika Hayasaki’s book about the class: “The Death Class: A True Story About Life.” And perhaps it will cause you, like me, to ponder death for a little while — your reactions to it, your fear of it, your appreciation of it (and therefore of life), what you think will come of it…

As repulsive as the subject might initially be, death isn’t really such a bad thing to think on for a bit. It seems like a worthwhile investment to me, at least.

One thought on “Some Monday Musings On… Death (Yes, Death)

  1. Thanks for the NPR article link! I think it’s great that students are having a class like that. I’m thinking about death today, reading about the horrible violence in Central Africa Republic, pondering what it must be like to have violent death coming randomly to your doorstep. But there’s also the powerful story of the archbishop of the Capitol and his work of reconciliation, and a Catholic priest who offered shelter to Muslims in a church. A lot to think about, and your post was very thoughtful and gave some good things to chew on.

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