On death

June 21, 2007 at 1:10 pm 4 comments

On Monday, I said goodbye to my kitty.

After coming very close to death at Christmas, Bubba had made a remarkable comeback and enjoyed an additional very happy six months of life. Unfortunately, however, the treatment for his kidney disease took its toll and wore him down. Though he showed every sign of health at the beginning of the week, I knew he didn’t have very long, and I didn’t want him to die in pain.

BubbaSo Monday morning, I said goodbye. I held him in my arms at the vet’s office as he went to sleep for the last time.

He was only a pet, I know, but the difficult thing about death is that one can’t look at it simply as an isolated event: the death of one creature, however insignificant that creature, provides a glimpse of the same unwelcome visitor who eventually comes to us all.

So mortality has been on my mind these last few days. I’ve struggled through the process of understanding what death is, how to let go, and what it all means.

::

Of death itself, I have no fear. I am certain there is no pain there. The dead, as Solomon declared, know nothing; they neither praise nor mourn, feel neither joy nor sorrow (Ecc. 9:5-6). Jesus and other New Testament writers habitually referred to death as a “sleep,” a term suggestive of the peace and still, quiet rest experienced in the grave (John 11:11, 14).

I am confident in these things, so I don’t fear death itself.

What I do fear, in my weaker moments, is that death is meaningless. I fear that it is simply “normal” and par for the course; I fear that the tragedy of death lacks any ultimate significance.

Solomon said, after all, that there is a time for every event under heaven; a time both to give birth and to die, a time both to plant and to uproot (Ecc. 3:3). He speaks as if each event alike is natural and normal, neither “good” nor “bad.”

This is the same view propounded by my unbelieving friends, who see death as unpleasant and regrettable but nevertheless a valid part of the natural order. Death, they would say, simply “is,” but it is not “bad.”

Is it true, then, that life and death are equally good, equally evil, equally to be expected, and equally to be embraced? Must I simply accept that death is a legitimate part of the cycle of life, a legitimate part of the way things are “supposed” to be?

::

I tried, on Monday, to accept the “normalness” of death. I tried to relax, to embrace death as natural, to let my kitty go peacefully, recognizing that it was “time.”

I tried to do this, but I couldn’t.

My body revolted at the thought of simply letting go and accepting death as legitimate. I wanted to scream every time I tried to think of this loss as natural.

What in the world could possibly be “normal” about death? The word simply does not compute in this instance. As it is normal for wheels to turn and for clocks to keep time, so it is normal for kitties to purr and to snuggle in someone’s lap and to fall asleep on pillows in front of the fireplace.

It is not normal for kitties to die.

BubbaTruly, my cat’s death was the result of a malfunction. His kidneys ceased performing properly; the function of his vital organs broke down. Far from being normal, his death represents the corruption of the functioning of his system; it represents the failure of his body to work according to plan.

What is normal, then, about death?

So my mind grasps for some affirmation of death’s abnormality. I crave a moral order that will allow me to differentiate qualitatively between life and death, to declare that death is somehow “wrong” and that it violates the way the world is supposed to work.

Perhaps this horror of death and its meaninglessness is simply a biological survival instinct; some would argue this is the case.

Then again, perhaps these feelings indicate something true about the world and about reality—namely, that death is, as Paul described it, a bona fide “enemy” to be conquered (1 Cor. 15:26).

Jesus claimed, of course, to have overcome this “enemy” of death. I admit my faith is weak now; my nearsighted eyes have trouble seeing beyond the silent finality of the grave. Still, I wait, and cry, and think on these things: “And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Stephen  |  June 21, 2007 at 8:17 pm

    I’m very sorry for your loss, Jamie. If I lived locally, I would stop by to give you a hug and let you talk my ear off for a while.

    But I guess you have lots of other friends for that. So I’ll wax theological, instead.

    I’ve had a couple of years experience defending Christianity in the blogosphere now (albeit my somewhat jaundiced version of it). I have come to the conclusion that our subjective experiences actually constitute one of the stronger evidences for the faith.

    As I said in a recent post, literally millions of Christians have had the experience of God comforting them in a time of grief, or calming them in a time of fear. That’s the kind of experience I have in mind: not just one self-deceived individual hearing a voice come out of an air duct or something, but an experience shared by large numbers of people, at a geographic, temporal, and cultural difference from one another. The more I meditate on that phenomenon, the more impressive it seems to me.

    Sceptics can always devise alternative explanations, just as they do for the origins of the cosmos. But alternative explanations do not constitute proof. And surely an experience shared so widely is not to be lightly dismissed.

    I am responding to this part of your post:

    Perhaps this horror of death and its meaninglessness is simply a biological survival instinct; some would argue this is the case. Then again, perhaps these feelings indicate something true about the world and about reality—namely, that death is, as Paul described it, a bona fide “enemy” to be conquered (1 Cor. 15:26).

    That, too, is an experience shared by millions of people: including those who have never heard the name of Jesus or the biblical account of mankind’s fall from grace and Christ’s resurrection.

    Yes, it is only to be expected that we would be angered by the death of a loved one (even a loved kitty). But the feeling is so intense, so visceral, so specific: that this thing, death, is alien to creation and therefore to be hated and despised. Death is a usurper — contrary to the natural order of things, just as you describe it here.

    I believe that. And I believe in Christ’s resurrection. The disciples certainly experienced something that convinced them, utterly, that the Lord is risen indeed. Another of those shared experiences that give us something relatively solid on which to pin our hopes.

    Grace and peace to you.
    xo

    Reply
  • 2. Jamie  |  June 23, 2007 at 1:36 am

    Stephen: Thank you for your sympathy and your kind words. They help.

    I tend to feel very skeptical about subjective confirmations of Christianity, as I think it’s awfully easy for people to deceive themselves based on what they want to be true. That’s part of why I was having such a hard time sorting out my own feelings on death this week–I am nervous about deceiving myself into accepting easy answers just because it feels more comfortable.

    On the other hand, even as I try to check myself and avoid jumping to conclusions, I cannot find a good way to make sense of death and my feelings about it unless the Bible’s picture of death is essentially true.

    So, I’m with you: as muddled as my head is this week, and as mixed up as my feelings have been, my subjective experiences seem to confirm that death is indeed a usurper, that this is not actually how it’s supposed to be. Somewhere along the line, I have to trust that this experience and these feelings are teaching me something true.

    Reply
  • 3. Audrey  |  June 25, 2007 at 1:25 pm

    Jamie,

    I’m SO sorry to hear about Bubba. I have to say with Stephen that if I were in Atlanta, I’d be over to give you a big hug in a heartbeat. It must hurt a lot. He was a precious kitty.

    I think that perhaps one of the strongest reasons to believe that we as humans are not merely the products evolutionary advancement, but rather designed for eternal existence, is our inborn horror at the thought of death – the death of anything, whether if be a fellow human or a beloved pet. I’ll never forget the first time my little sister Heidi saw a dead butterfly on the driveway. It nearly crushed her to come to grips with the fact that life as we know it has an end.

    I’ve been grappling with this issue myself this week, as my fiance Luke is very rapidly losing his grandfather to Alzheimer’s disease. As natural a phenomena as we say death is, somehow we feel in our hearts that perhaps, after all, death just isn’t so natural.

    Reply
  • 4. Jamie  |  June 28, 2007 at 12:11 am

    Audrey: Thank you. You are right, it is very hard to come to grips with death, and not just for little kids like Heidi either. Even as we grow up, it never becomes natural.

    I’m sorry to hear that Luke is losing his grandfather. That’s very sad, especially when Alzheimer’s is involved. Not that there is any easy way to lose a grandparent, but that must be especially difficult. You guys are in my prayers (as always).

    Reply

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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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