Some mysteries about a death's impact...

Why do some deaths cut like a knife while others are sad but effect your soul in only marginal ways?  Like falling in love or the unpredictable reasons why some people embrace recovery while others can not do so not matter how hard they try, so too the mystery of the various ways death impacts our hearts.  It is, indeed, incomprehensible.
I understand part of it: Joy Davidman once told C.S. Lewis as they wrestled with her death by cancer that the "pain then (after a death) is part of the happiness now. That's the deal." And if we have experienced profound happiness now - if we have been blessed with friendships and loves that have integrity and verve - then part of the deal is that we will hurt like hell when it is over. I pretty much understand that part - and maybe that is all I will ever comprehend - but I often wonder why some deaths seem to reach up from out of nowhere and grab me by the throat while others have little to no impact on me at all.

I mean I didn't know either Lou Reed or Philip Seymour Hoffman personally, I valued their artistic work, but both of their deaths kicked my ass.  And in my 30+ years of ordained ministry, I can think of only a handful of people in my various churches whose death ripped my heart in two in ways that some of the deaths in my family did not:

+ In Cleveland, a wounded but beautiful servant, Don Wooten, destroyed me for a time. We spent a lot of time together, to be sure, we played music and cared for children, he adored my family and we spent a great deal of personal time at the movies, too. And when he died on the operating table at the Cleveland Clinic I thought my mind was going to break. Indeed, the pain then was connected to the happiness now.  Twenty years later, another Clevelander by the name of Michael Daniels, died and he, too ripped my heart out. I hadn't seen Michael in years, but I had helped him get clean and sober and we shared a love that transcended race and class and even distance. I felt like someone had sucker punched me when news came of his lonely death.
+ In Tucson, there were two soul-wounding deaths:  Mary Stoft and Dolores Brown.  Two very different professional women, two very different deaths but both were complicated and trying.  Mary had been a three time cancer survivor when her last cancer became more virulent than any treatment could change. She was gentle with a fierce commitment to live - and I knew and loved her family as if they were my own. Upon reflection, I think it was her absence from our lives that was so anguishing. Life truly was a little less  vibrant without her.  And Dolores... she was a big-hearted and big woman from Oklahoma who started out teaching Spanish at Smith College in Northampton, MA.  She took a 1 year visiting professor post at the University of Arizona in Tucson and never looked back. She was a peace activist, loving auntie and gracious servant of God in extraordinary ways. Her death was one of the most beautiful and intentional acts of dying I have ever experienced. We often spoke of the ingredients to a "good death." And when she had put her life in order - and said her farewells - she took off her wig and slowly went to sleep in the Lord. I was blessed to have journeyed with both of these women into their deaths - and while I am grateful beyond words - they both hurt like hell.

+ And now in Pittsfield.  First there was Vicki Forfa, a beloved local teacher and mom, who died way too early.  It was during my first year in town. She worked on my staff as our Christian Educator and had been a vigorous supporter on my search committee. Her cancer was vigorous and before I celebrated my second Christmas in the Berkshires, she was dead. And now Rick Weber, another cherished teacher who brought art to young people all over this region, has gone home to the Lord. He was vibrant, bold, loving and totally faithful. He painted in the plein art style and during the past two years of his retirement had created some truly stunning works of art. Last night I wept and wept and wept for his family and, to be honest, for myself because I loved to share life with this man.
A colleague and friend from seminary wrote to me last night saying that as she ages - and experiences more and more death - it is becoming clear that maybe one of the final gifts we can offer to our children has to do with teaching them about a good death.  I think that is true and I hope I can rise to the occasion; because, God knows, the deaths we have encountered in my immediate family have not been good deaths. We shall see. And in the mean time, the mystery of why some deaths hurt so much and others pass away will haunt me.


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