People die. Anyone over a certain age – not to be too specific about what that age is – knows this. We all know it intellectually, at least. If we’re old enough, and have known enough people, we know it experientially, too. Again, not to be too specific about “enough.”
Nevertheless, death takes us by surprise more often than not. At least, death more often than not takes me by surprise. Like yesterday, when I got word that a friend of mine had died. And even though I knew that she had been “doing poorly” for a long time, I hadn’t thought of it as “that poorly.” And even though I knew that she was what we might think of as “older,” I never thought of her as “that old.” More like, “about my age.” Which is not that old.
So I always think I have more time than that. More time than that to pick up chili from Wendy’s, for instance, and take it over to the nursing home, and sit and have a chat over it. More time than none.
I would name this feeling loss. Loss of a long and true friendship, if you call the past twenty years or so long. I would. Loss of one of the most generous people of anyone I’ve ever known; a teacher of generosity. Loss of the only person I’ve ever known who sincerely and automatically opened and closed and frequently punctuated every conversation with prayer; a teacher of prayer-as-breathing. Loss of about the only person in the world who ever got me willingly through the door of dinner theater. Don’t judge. I got to see Into the Woods live. I don’t think I know anyone who will put up with Sondheim for me with genuine enthusiasm. Now.
I would name this feeling loss … were it not for the equally surprising keen awareness that we believe, really, and that we are supposed to believe, certainly, that we do not “grieve as others do who have no hope” and that “the faithful, after bodily death, go directly to Christ” [Second Helvetic Confession] and that “to depart and be with Christ … is far better”. That awareness makes it feel frankly selfish, or at least ungenerous, or even unkind, to hang on “loss.”
Even though normally when I hear people say “they’re in a better place” I mostly just get annoyed. Because normally it sounds to me like something people are only saying because it’s vaguely “the right thing to say.” It hardly ever sounds like something people are saying because they mean it in a really concrete way. “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but …”
But in my friend’s case, it hit me this morning, it feels like precisely the right thing to say. As well as the completely natural, and sincere, and true thing to say. It’s what she would say, and mean it in the most concrete way. Like breathing. All of which modifies that sense of loss, though it doesn’t erase it.
So I am thinking, “Resignation.” The extraordinary music in the worship service yesterday was the old Southern Harmony tune “Resignation.” It’s probably best known as the musical setting of Isaac Watts’s hymn “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need.” “Resignation” probably describes this feeling best. This feeling we have around death, those of us who still only imagine the reality pointed to in that hymn. But who at the same time can hardly begrudge a friend the experience of joining those whose only work is praise, and who are no longer strangers, or guests, but simply, finally, blissfully, at home.