I am twenty three years old and am contemplating my death for the first time...
During the terrorist attacks and when I was in a bad car accident I was afraid of death. These moments were filled with a gut reaction for self-preservation. I touched the reality of death, but not the personal mysterious separation that is discovered when a loved one dies (1).
Last Tuesday I was gathered around the bed of a good family friend as she was dying. I received from these hours a beautiful witness. We would sit in silence as she slept. We would laugh as she would complain about the tantrums we would throw as kids. Then with great sincerity that may only be able to be experienced as one dies, she would be contrite for all her complaints about us. This response was not because we were hurt by her comments, but because her desire to love more fully was welling up inside of her. Then there would be silence and she would well up with tears overwhelmed by the love she experienced from others in her life. She would say different things through her tears each time, but it was always about the love she experienced from others. Her one question to me was “why did God make death? It is the worst thing to be separated from the people we love.” My first thought was “Well, Millie, God didn’t create death. We sinned and it’s a consequence and a remedial punishment.” If I were to answer this way, I would’ve missed the heart of her question.
Millie wrestled with her death and her love for us which seemed in opposition. Her love for us came from her love for God. Sure, she took a natural human affection for certain one’s of us, but her memory, her fidelity, consistency, and selflessness must be of God. Connecting her love for us to her love for God can help us understand Millie’s question. If the two loves are connected then we can say that even our love for each other has immortality. Dostoyevsky said,
Despite the truth that Millie, with the love of God in her heart, will still be able to love us on earth, there is a real separation. Her personhood came to me through her warm, wrinkly hands, and her bluntly compassionate remarks, and her smile. With her death this is not the case. We are separated. This is the mystery of death. Millie is still able to love us because of her immortality and through her love for God, but her love for me is different, and this separation is painful. “The hints of immortality point toward things totally unknown and unimaginable” (3), and her love has taken on an uncertain and radically different form.
I’ve taken for granted how beautiful the body is, and how through the body the souls’ of men can reach each other. With Millie’s death I understand this gift more clearly. She cannot at this time communicate her love to me through her body. Though death opens for Millie the possibility of freedom from the limitations of the body we experience, she can no longer communicate her soul to me where I am and where she is.
So I come back to contemplating my own death. I have this one life to love God and love others and to love through my body. I have the surety that things will be difficult, that I will love and separation will take place, but it won’t end. If I persevere in my love for God, no love will be wasted. It will be taken up in ways beyond my understanding. I will suffer in separation, but nothing will be wasted. No love will have a definitive end. As I continue to contemplate death, I take this hope of loves’ immortality as confidence along the way.
The heart of Millie’s question seemed to be more of a nudge for reassurance. She questioned death because it seemed like a violent response to the love she had for us. I now have a response, “Millie, this separation will be painful, for me and maybe for you, but it’s not the end.”
(1) Hildebrand, Jaws of Death: Gate of Heaven , 4.
(2) Ibid, 16.
(3) Ibid, 24.