Death. It’s everywhere but nowhere. It’s inescapable but hidden. It’s inevitable but unmentionable.
I’ve meant to write a death blog for a while. Coincidentally it’s fallen on the week of the 8th anniversary of losing Ben – something that has become normal without every stopping being shocking.
Why a blog about death? Because we remain instinctively very bad at dealing with it and talking about it. Maybe we’re not as bad as in the past with stories of a sudden death never being discussed but still some people won’t talk about it and many avoid it.
A few recent things have brought this home. A conversation with a bereaved work colleague, early in the morning before others had arrived. The shared recognition and empathy that it’s healthy to be able to talk about our loss but that this is a rare opportunity. Then there was the seminar about loss that Louise and I led at a recent day for Christians working with young people. A few souls, able to share their own pain. A concerned few, wanting to know how they could support in such a time. It’s not that we were seeking crowds but in reality it’s a fringe topic yet we all face it repeatedly.
And yes of course it is hard. We don’t want to look down as experts at people getting it wrong, we’re absolutely not that. That in fact is exactly the point – no-one knows what to do or say. Losing a loved one is horrific. What we need is people prepared to be there, to stand alongside, to be brave enough to talk with stammered words and more importantly to listen through painful silences, bewilderment and tears that may not stop anytime soon.
Death comes to everyone, which means that there’s an awful lot of death going on but I’m struck when I hear others talk how much it seems to cause not just an understandable shock but somehow a surprise. I’ve heard people talk about losing a few people they know close together and whilst I get the grief it’s almost talked as of as an anomaly.
Every death is painful but we don’t seem prepared for the idea of it. We should of course be grateful for increasing life expectancies but they don’t change the end result. In an era of plastic surgery and talk of cryogenics there is an undercurrent of denial about ageing and mortality.
Behind the very British awkwardness there is of course fear.
There is fear of saying the wrong thing. This is understandable but trust me, saying nothing and unwittingly giving the impression that you either don’t care or have forgotten is worse. Whilst we are very blessed by people who remember key dates we don’t expect loads of people to do that but we do want people to remember our boy. We want to talk about Ben, we love him, we miss him and we have never lost the sense of privilege of having had him.
There is fear of course of our own death, of accepting that that is real. Without being obsessive or terrified of every risk we should live with an awareness that we will die. A healthy balance would mean that we use the time we have well, not putting off things that matter, treating each day as a blessing and an investment.
Another fear is the fear that death undermines our ideas of how we think life should be – it shows the shakiness of our plans, it rocks the tidiness of our faith. I have written and spoken frequently about Ben’s death smashing my theology, my understanding of faith. I had to learn to accept that faith doesn’t ward the tough stuff off, it helps you to survive and come through it.
I remember a card we received after Ben died. It said ‘sometimes there are no words’. Too right. What words are adequate? But those few at least expressed that they knew, they got it, they were thinking of us.
Death is the ultimate expression of our powerlessness – the ultimate offence to our pride. In our distress I believe God offers us each other, to walk through the storm and himself as an ultimate hope.
At Easter we celebrated that Jesus beat death and we believe that Ben was rocking with the celestial choir. He is keeping Jesus busy, we will see him again. But he should still be here with us.
For advice on supporting with bereavement please visit: https://www.careforthefamily.org.uk/family-life/bereavement-support/supporting-bereaved-people/for-those-wanting-to-help