tears of hope: a christian perspective on death

two years ago, we said “goodbye” to my sister-in-law, hayley dawn. though it hardly feels right using the words “in-law.” she never used them when she introduced me as her brother.

this goodbye came after five of the most difficult days of our lives. days spent praying, crying and struggling to keep conversation. days that became blurred together, spent in the hospital that acted as our makeshift home for the week.

we prayed at her bedside. we prayed when we were walking alone in those cold, long hospital wings. we prayed in the middle of conversations, to ourselves. we tried to sleep. tried to eat. but it didn’t make sense. none of it did.

and then, on may 1, she was gone. just like that.

without a chance to catch our breath, we were forced to move forward, pushed along by the pressing current of passing seconds, minutes, hours and days. pushed along by weeks and months that had no sympathy for this loss. pressed by the forward movement of time that seemed to want to swallow up and fill in the void left by her absence.

and we were left dumbstruck by it all. i’ve never seen someone look so confused until that day i saw two parents lose their 19-year old daughter. i’ve never felt so confused myself until i felt those first moments in the absence of my sister’s life.

death doesn’t fit life

death is a funny thing. not funny “ha ha,” of course, but funny in a sesame street, “one of these things does not belong” kind of way.

death is funny, in a way, because it just doesn’t seem to fit with life. we squirm when we think or talk about death, even though it’s supposed to be this natural thing.

“it’s as natural as birth,” they tell us, but i’ve yet to meet someone who actually feels that way when it happens to those closest to them.

i realize death is common to us all. and i might even be willing to admit it’s a part of life (as we know it). but i’m not so sure i believe it’s natural. and i think, intuitively, we all know that.

when someone close to us has passed away, everything within us screams at this news. our very soul wants to shout,

“no!…

this isn’t right!

it’s unnatural!”

and it is.

i say death is unnatural because we were not created to die, we were created to live. and our souls know that.

our souls don’t get death. it leaves us scratching our heads, like the young boy who’s just been told his grandpa has “gone up to be with Jesus,” left to ask, “sooo… can i go see him?”

we are eternal beings forced into the temporal. like a fish snatched from its aquatic home; placed on the dry, dusty ground; and commanded to walk. like a fish flapping its body against the dirt, struggling to breathe, we simply do not know what to do when faced with the reality of death.

savored like a six-course meal

if our souls know death is unnatural, it seems our memories do, as well. when we lose someone close to us, our minds have a way of not letting them go.

memories of a lost loved one rush at us like hungry koi racing to the surface of our mind as we go about our day. we’re constantly reminded of the reality of their life as memories from times together are cast like a shadow on the back of our eyes.

sometimes they visit us when a particular experience triggers a memory. sometimes they seem to come by no invitation at all.

and no matter how painful they may seem at the time, we wouldn’t trade those memories for the world. when the aftertaste is all we have, we savor it like a six-course meal.

it’s funny the way memory works. i’ve lived in the uk for two years now, and i still can’t tell you my phone number. yet i have no trouble recalling conversations that took place years ago.

before i leave

the memory of hayley that i can’t shake lately is of our family sitting around the dining room table and talking, long after we had finished eating, as we often do.

in this particular memory, hayley is getting on to me about hurrying up and having a baby already. jen had wanted a baby for a long time, and everyone knew it. i was dragging my feet, and everyone knew that, too.

it was a bit of a touchy subject, though, since it was well known i was hoping to wait a bit before we started having children. because of that, people wouldn’t really bring it up to me.

but hayley would. hayley could. that’s just how things worked between us. and hayley wanted a niece or nephew nearly as much as jen wanted a baby.

hayley was considering moving away to hawaii for college at the time, and she wanted to make sure she was home when we finally decided to have our first child. she didn’t realize it at the time–she couldn’t have–but something she said that evening would stick with me for years to come. the words she spoke that night would prove to be a painful reminder of the depth of this loss long after she was gone.

after talking excitedly about how she couldn’t wait to be an aunt, hayley’s face became serious as she looked me in the eyes from her seat across the table and said, rather pointedly,

“you have to have one before i leave, ryan.”

hayley never made it to hawaii.

and now, two years later, and just a few months away from the arrival of our first child, this memory replays itself in my mind day after day in the still quietness of a library. i distract myself with sideways glances out the second-story window, but staring out into the pale blue sky, i can’t help but cringe at the thought that our little emma will grow up without her aunt hayley.

this is my first time having children, so i’m certainly not an expert on how this is supposed to go, but there’s nothing about this that feels natural to me.

dressing up death

some christians, when talking about death, will try to downplay its significance. they’ll dress it up and tell us it’s a good thing, not a bad thing. and they’re right, in some ways. but i think they’re terribly wrong in others.

when faced with the death of a close friend, Jesus cried tears of sorrow, even though He knew he would soon bring this friend back to life.

i’ve heard some christian writers say Jesus was crying because he was fed up with all the unbelief He experienced. they’ll say these people should’ve known Jesus could do anything, even bring this deceased friend back to life, and that Jesus had simply had it with their lack of faith.

but i don’t buy that. we see lots of examples of Jesus being frustrated by the shallow faith of His followers, but not once does He respond with tears. not except for here, in this one instance.

and i think that tells us that these were real, genuine tears of sorrow. i believe these were tears of anger, even. anger at the ugliness of death, and the hurt that comes with it. i think Jesus saw that. and felt it.

Jesus knew this isn’t the way things were supposed to work. He knew things had gone terribly wrong, and death was a painful reminder of that.

Jesus’ tears at the news of His friend’s death tells us death really isn’t a good thing. they remind us that we don’t have to dress up death as being beautiful or pretend like we’re all right, even when we all know, deep down, it’s ugly and painful. and that we’re not all right.

Jesus’ tears tell us its okay to grieve and acknowledge the ugliness of death with our own tears. even as christians. and even if we approach death in great hope of what is to come.

a different take

in a way, those who try to dress up death are right, i suppose. as christians, we do have a different take on death.

if we believed this was all there is–birth, life, death and then the cessation of our being–we would cry without hope. but we don’t. we do cry–my God, do we cry!–but we cry with hope.

as christians, we believe what happens on the other side of this life is infinitely more beautiful than this present darkness is dark. but we must be careful when it comes to talking about death.

if we’re not careful, we can make it seem like the loss of a loved one isn’t that big of a deal. it is. it always is. things are broken, and they’re broken in a way that hurts us deeply.

and if we’re not careful, we can also make it seem like grieving isn’t appropriate for christians, not in light of what we know. but the thing is, grieving is perfectly appropriate for christians, in light of how horrible death is.

Jesus felt it appropriate to weep in the face of death. so, too, do we.

death reminds us things are not the way they were meant to be, and we feel the pain of the world’s present brokenness just as much as anyone else.

we’re no longer fearful of death, we might say. and rightly so. because we have hope that on the other side of this life is the real life. life with Him. and so death is no longer a scary thing. but it’s also not a beautiful thing.

the reason for our tears over death is not that the next place is so scary, it’s that saying “goodbye” is so hard, even if it’s only for a time.

darkness into dawn

there’s this account in the book a severe mercy where a friend of c.s. lewis’s, an american by the name of sheldon vanauken who had met and befriended lewis while studying in oxford during the 1950’s, had lunch with lewis for the last time. the two friends would exchange letters with one another for many years to come, but this would be their final time meeting in-person, though neither men knew it at the time.

after sharing a meal together, the two men bid each other “farewell,” and lewis assured his friend they’d see one another again:

“i shan’t say good-bye. we’ll meet again.”

with that, lewis crossed the street, dodging traffic as he went. and it was when he had safely reached the other side of the road that he turned around and shouted back with a grin:

“…besides, christians never say goodbye!”

death is a funny thing. we’re told it’s natural, and yet we intuitively know it’s not. we know life is not supposed to end. and, we’re told–thank God–that it won’t. it won’t really.

we’re told, because of His sacrifice, there is hope. even when it seems like this news brings only darkness, we know, deep down, there is hope. because of what He has done.

and so, as trite as they may seem during our darkest moments, there is still great truth in the words clement of alexandria wrote many, many years ago:

“Christ has turned all of our sunsets into dawns.”

see you soon

and so we cry. we cry when we remember those words they once said. we cry when we remember that look on their face. we cry when we remember the sound of their laugh or the little things they did with their hands when they talked.

we cry because we know this isn’t how things are supposed to be. we cry because we know death is unnatural and because we want them back. we cry because we want them back so bad. we cry because it’s tough to say “goodbye.”

but we cry with tears of hope, because deep down we know our tears will not last forever. we know it’s not really “goodbye.” not really. it’s “goodbye for now.” it’s “see you soon.”

-for hayley dawn, and for those who cry with tears of hope-
you remain missed 

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