Most of our lives are spent tiptoeing around death, sometimes pretending like it isn’t there, sometimes putting other things in its way, and sometimes intentionally minimizing it, as if any of those options put death to death. This is true of our own mortality but even more-so when it comes to those we love. Parents, brothers and sisters, friends, even our children. We tiptoe around it because we’re scared of it, because we absorb messages in our lives that tell us life is always good, death is always bad, so best to flee from it however much you can. When J.K. Rowling was crafting her primary villain for the Harry Potter series she could think of no better name to give him than “Vol-de-mort” which, in French, means “flees from death.”
So, it is at first jarring, sometimes uncomfortable, but ultimately a tremendous blessing to have people—nurses and social workers and retired people, as well as people who have vocations that don’t seem to have a thing to do with end of life care—who nonetheless give of themselves, their time and energy, to those whose life is ending, who do not flee from death out of fear but who stand alongside the dying, because that is what human beings are called to do. These people are the hands and feet of Jesus, it is most certainly true.
Last month I was eating with a friend whose son had recently died unexpectedly—not a hospice situation, more of the tragic accident type—and during the course of the conversation we were talking about the ways that we face our mortality or flee from it. We talked about how Ironman triathlons are overrun with people in their 40s and 50s, trying desperately, it seems, to remain young forever. Perhaps if they do just a little more and just a little more they will never get old. We talked about regrets and living with grief, figuring out how to truly live when the imagined future is gone and we are confronted with a real-present that isn’t what we imagined. We talked purpose and what the good-life looks like. We talked about love, without using the word.