These last few weeks have been challenging for Mary Kay and me because we have two immediate family members facing imminent death. I have thought a lot about death since my mom died when she was younger than I. But I am not sure we are ever fully prepared to lose those close to us until it smacks us in the face. It is difficult to comprehend the emotional cost of building deep long-lasting relationships, and even more difficult to comprehend bringing these same relationships to a healthy ending.
Death is an interesting process from a relational perspective. Relationships go through big challenges in death. This is true for the person who is dying as well as for those around them. Most of us just don’t deal well with death because we don’t talk about it or prepare for how to deal with it. Let me suggest that struggling with death can be as much about the death of the relationship as it is about a person physically dying. As Christians, we believe that death is about so much more than simply ceasing to exist. But even we use terms which soften the concept such as:
- Passing away: This is one of the most common and gentle ways to refer to someone’s death.
- Departed: It suggests that the person has left this world.
- Expired: Often used in official documents, it indicates the end of a person’s life.
- Gone to a better place: Implies that the person is in a more peaceful or pleasant state after death.
- Lost their battle: Typically used when someone has been struggling with a serious illness or condition.
- No longer with us: A softer way to say that someone has died.
- Crossed over: Suggests a transition from life to an afterlife or another realm.
- Resting in peace: Refers to the idea that the person is now at peace after death.
- Passed on: Similar to “passed away,” indicating the transition from life to death.
- Joined the angels: Often used in a religious context, implying the person is in heaven.
- Going to be with Jesus: Expresses spending time in eternity with our God
- Going home: i.e. to be with Jesus
These euphemisms are often employed to convey the idea of death in a more sensitive or comforting manner. We do this to comfort the hurting, but in so doing, I think we may miss so many steps to grieve the end of the relationship.
There is a terrible tearing of the relationship when the person dies physically. Much of a grieving process can be the result of the loss of the relationship. How do we end relationships well? This is an important part of grieving.
In the case of an accident or sudden death, we aren’t given the opportunity to do so. Therefore there is the need to keep all relationships healthy and deal with issues when they arise as Ephesians 4.26 tells us not to let the sun go down on your anger.
In other relationships, we have time to heal relationships or at least create an opportunity for a healthy end to our earthly relationship.
I fully appreciate as believers, we know we will see those who are in Christ again for all eternity, but death still involves the ending of the earthly relationship we have now. We really don’t fully understand what it will look like in eternity. Jesus tells us that people won’t be married in eternity (Matthew 9.29), so relationships will look different in our lives after death. I also fully appreciate that the deceased continues to live on in our hearts. However, it is hard to touch or talk to that person in a visceral sense, which is an important part of relationships.
In death, the relationship, as we know it, will end. How we prepare for this ending of relationships really matters. Too many of us don’t know how to talk about death, so we don’t. Atul Gwande, a Hindu and general surgeon, wrote Being Mortal to offer a non-religious perspective on death and dying. It’s a good book that reminds us of all the reasons we refuse to face the fact that we will die and cease to be in relationships with those we leave behind. Let me suggest that we don’t ignore one of the most concrete facts around us: we all will die and pass on from this life as we know it this side of death. Everyone one of us.
When my mom was terminally ill with cancer for seven years, I and the others around me just didn’t want to talk about her impending death. We talked a lot about her life, but not her death. However, she continued to bring the conversation back to what life would be like without her in our presence. She died a radiant death. Not in an awkward way, but in a gentle and gracious manner that encouraged conversation about life after she would be gone. She helped us to prepare for her death.
Unfortunately, we didn’t call hospice until a few days before her impending death because of our fear of admitting the reality of it. Once we did, they asked my mom why she was “hanging on.” She said she wanted to see my sister one more time, and my sister wasn’t coming down for another month or so. I called my sister, and she came the next day. My mom died about 24 hours later. There was a relationship that needed attention, and my mom refused to die until that was taken care of.
Healthy relationships are essential to healthy living and healthy dying. Healthy relationships produce our joys and our pains. And relationships take a lot of work to help them grow and die!
I close with the prayer that Dallas Willard prayed every semester for his students, according to Gary Black in his book Preparing for Heaven.
“I pray that you would have a rich life of joy and power, abundant in supernatural results, with a constant, clear vision of never-ending life in God’s world before you, and the everlasting significance of your work day by day. A radiant life and a radiant death.Dallas Willard in Preparing for Heaven
…and I would add before the emboldened text, “and a life full of healthy relationships to continually nurture and expand your horizons.”