I am currently surrounded by people who are dying.
Some, slightly removed from me and some I look in the eye every day. It appears that there are two responses to a terminal diagnosis, after the normal shock, grief and anger.
The first seems to be the most common amongst evangelical Christians: an heroic and faith-filled expectation of medical miracles, an overwhelming belief in the power of positive thinking. A hopeful optimism about 'living life to the full', as if in defiance of the diagnosis.
The second, less common, also seems hopeful, at least to me. A hopeful pragmatism, a leaning into what it might mean to die well. Less miracle-obsessed and more legacy mindful.
Most of the Western world is afraid of dying. And it's not actually death we are afraid of, but the process of dying. It's the unavoidable conclusion we all face, regardless of spiritual beliefs, that the breath will end, the body will cease the function, the mind will close and the end of this life will come.
That last breath is just that. The end will come in a moment, a rattling breath held between long pauses until the pause becomes the final cadence. It's the journey to those last seconds that we resist and pull against. We resist what we call 'loss of dignity' when actually we mean we don't want to teeter towards death losing control of our minds or our bodily functions. We hate decay. We hate the reality of rotting while breathing.
Only the good die young or not.
It's hard not to feel the tragedy of life ending for people in their prime. Those who are still enjoying the fragrance of youth, the romance of leisurely weekends or the thrill of newborn days. Worse still, the tiny ones for whom life is swept away before it's barely begun.
Maybe there is a hard truth in here; we've started to behave and believe that life is something we're entitled to, rather than a fragile, sometimes fleeting gift.
I feel the pull of injustice and fury, those new parents who face leaving the world before their children have a chance to know them. Those who die from preventable disease in developing countries create the same response in me—but they are faceless, my friends are not.
Is it possible though, that we could be happy about dying? Might we collectively be able to accept death as a normal process in functioning society and engage in meaningful grief, acceptance and peace?
The miracle cure
We can cure some diseases. We can ease the symptoms of some viruses. We can prevent some illnesses from their drastic effects. But humanity, science and medicine has many limitations. Faith has limitations too. We may demand a miracle, but we cannot expect it.
We cannot cure all maladies, and we absolutely cannot cure death. There is no theology that I have found or would want to subscribe to; that supports a God that must cure on demand either.
So when we talk about medicine, we talk about prolonging life. We rage, we fight, we strive for life – but we cannot cure death. In fact, death is necessary. More necessary that we often like to admit, but without it there can be no inheritance.
The ideology of dying
Death is a process of seasons; all of which are vital. Death itself is not a disease; death is not to be cured. Death must exist so that something else can carry on. It is as much a thriving, growing, seeding process as birth. The pumpkin seed buried in the earth bears no resemblance to its fruit until you cut within it. Yet, its seed life had to cede in order to provide sustenance to the new plant. So in dying, purpose can be fulfilled as sweetly as in living.
The theology of it all
Inevitably, it seems that it's hard to talk about the end of life without engaging in some belief or another about what happens after that.
It's funny to me, that some people talk about what people don't deserve. If anyone 'doesn't' deserve death, it means someone does. The sheer audacity to proclaim that death is something we determine worth by is horrifying to me. It's a strange kind of grief that accepts the death of one, more easily than another and claims that as some sort of fairness or justice, by merit of what one deserves. Conversely, the phrase 'if anyone deserves a miracle, it's you' sickens me. How disconnected from reality are we, if our idea of comforting words is such a false and futile statement?
You see, we're still—Christian, Atheist, Muslim, whatever—susceptible to viewing Death as punishment, the unexpected ending, rather than what it is.
Death is the final season, the closing bell. It comes in all sorts of shapes and forms. It used to come sooner, often quicker. Now, we hold out the value of life above the value of a good death. We fight to hold onto days of dulled pain, for a shot of more time. But time is only worth what you give it. Maybe we spend too much time waiting for life to get good before we start living. Then we rage against Death, when that's as much part of living as anything else.
More, more, more. It used to be that women sent their husbands to war with the hopes of their return. Nowadays, we scramble for text messages throughout the day. We just want more and more and more, often without pausing to consider that anything we have is a blessing.
Imagine if the modern-day long distance romance had to wait on airmail or sea delivery instead of digital audio, email and video calling? We've become used to the luxury of accessible time. Being able to connect with people more often, more easily. When we want to.
That's the luxury we can't bear to be separated from. Death remains as resolute as ever. No matter how many text messages, instagrams, blog posts, Facebook updates or coffee dates—when Death comes, connection is over.
It's connection that we crave—connection that tells us, reminds us we are living indeed. No wonder we fight and rage against death. But still Death comes. So it should.
We've come to crave connection and scream 'Unfair!' when Death comes to take it from us, when we should be more interested in better endings.
Originally published on www.tashmcgill.com.
First published July 9, 2014
Tash McGill is a professional writer and digital strategist who has been involved in church and community ministry since her teens. She is passionate about adolescent development, community formation and hospitality. She writes weekly at www.tashmcgill.com.
Tash McGill's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/tash-mcgill.html