On May 24 it will be thirteen years since my daughter Christine died. For several years I considered writing about my reaction to her dying and death. I resisted because death is a private, painful matter, too personal to air publicly. But then I changed my mind and published these excerpts from journal entries over a year’s time to show what had taken place within me during that period.
Death and dying needs more openness.
Too often I hear that a funeral “brings closure” to a loved one's death, whether from natural causes, accident, or illness. The assumption is that in a matter of days, after the official rites have been held, mourners can get back to everyday living and the huge hole caused by the death will close over.
I want to shout loudly: Not true!
Grief is a journey, sometimes a long journey. That death becomes part of the mourner’s life. It can’t be dispensed with quickly like the wilted flowers after the funeral service is over. It lingers in the soul, leaving and returning, bringing pleasant memories, but also the hurt in the soul. Death should never disable a person permanently.
In our society death is a taboo subject, except in jest, like “kicking the bucket,” Some people cannot get themselves to say, “Mother died,” as if death is a four-letter word. Instead I hear, “My mother is deceased,” or “My mother passed on.” Never “Mother is dead.”
Some mornings I check the newspaper to find out how the obituaries announce a death: “Mother .... went home to Jesus,” “went to be with the Lord,” “entered eternal life,” “flew to her eternal home.” Few people die anymore. “Passed away” is the most frequently used term and is easier for some to say than “Mother died.” Death seems so final, so they turn to euphemisms like “my mother is deceased” to make death seem less certain.
While the language of death is becoming vaguer and more reticent, the language and depiction of sexual relationships is becoming bolder and more detailed. Necklines are plunging deeper and deeper, plumbers’ cracks becoming more visible as are ads with men in bulging briefs or facing a urinal.
“Breast” and “leg,” taboo words in Victorian times, brought into usage vaguer terms like “chest” and “lower limbs." No vagueness today. Today we get the full frontal view. It seems urgent to get as naked as possible in public.
In the Victorian age death was an everyday occurrence for a population whose life expectancy was in the early forties. People expected to die. They knew they would die. They saw it happening all around them. Infectious disease was rampant, medical care mediocre and infrequent. Death was a daily fact of life.
Today a daily fact of life is nudity. People bare the skin and lay open to public view what once was considered sacred and private. Nudity in public is a plot to keep from having to reveal one's soul, someone has said. Instead of getting rid of qualms and fears, feelings of inadequacy and sinfulness, we rid ourselves of our clothing.Adam's fig leaf has become a joke.
Keeping what is private covered is considered uncool today because sex symbolizes strength and power, and victory over weakness – good sex seems to erase death – at least temporarily. Good sex is important. Lots of sex and talk about sex is even more important to make up for the meaninglessness that invades people’s lives, while thoughts about death are taboo. I think it is important to talk about death more.
I wrote this blog also because our attitude toward death affects the way we bury the dead. We dispose of our dead and conduct our funerals according to what we think happens after death.
We buried our Christine according to her wishes in a plain pine casket in a simple funeral without all the extra fake greenery, funeral vans, and so forth as a reflection of her life and beliefs. She believed in the simple life.
Yes, we also celebrated her life, over tea, the love of her life. In that regard we followed the modern trend to “celebrate life” at a funeral, in other words eulogize, reminisce, joke about, show PowerPoint clips.
We did that but also wanted to say that death had come, but it was not the end. Death is defeated by the power of God in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It became a service of worship and praise that God was, is, and will be—a service of hope. “Death, where is thy sting? Grave, where is thy victory?”
This Memorial Day Susan and I drove to the cemetery to place flowers on Christine’s grave. The sun was shining like it shone 13 years ago. But there was a strong wind blowing, so the meadowlarks remained hidden in the thicket. Susan trimmed the grave and placed a beautiful bouquet in the vase at the head. The grave marker reads: Christine R. Wiebe, daughter, sister, friend. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is my portion forever. Psalm 73:26
My heart is at peace. Christine is in God’s hands.I have to go on living.