If You Don’t Talk About This
(It will still happen.)
“Honey I’m not going to be around much longer. I just want you to know.”
This was the first time a grown-up acknowledged death to me. It was my Dad. He was gone just a couple years later. Maybe less. It’s a blur.
When he said it, it upset me greatly because, at fourteen, I wasn’t willing to accept the conversation or the remote possibility that he would not be in my life, even if only on holidays and weekends. He was my favorite.
I fought him with great teen angst. I’ll call it “teen whine”. “Daaaaaad! Stooooop!” He just repeated it. “Honey, I’m not going to be around much longer. I just want you to know.”
At once terrifying and merciful.
Dad had already had two heart attacks. He knew he wasn’t long for the world, and he knew the history of his family. He had a third and final heart attack and that was it just a few years later. My Dad, the prophet.
My mom (grandmother… and for that matter my dad was, yes, my grandfather… but now this is picking nits) never talked about death or anything surrounding it. Fear was palpable around that unspoken topic. You just didn’t discuss it. She felt the same way about passing gas. And the closer she got, even before the Alzheimer’s took over, the more palpable the fear became. Not talking about death was a very loud unspoken conversation. The scythe in the corner leaning against the wall not blending into anything.
I believe the central reason that most don’t want to speak of death is that it deepens the reality that death is a possibility. I laugh even typing that because OF COURSE it’s a possibility. But we think we are so powerful; that if we speak of it, POOF, it appears. Hubris. Yes, our words have power, and it does matter how you choose to speak “over” something, but to assume that to speak about a topic magically manifests it into existence is again, hubris, and ultimately devolves into superstition.
As I have read, God doesn’t seem to be a huge fan of superstition.
When we speak about death or contemplate it, I think what we’re afraid of is the absence, the physical and deep emotional loss, for one. We have a great misunderstanding of what “death” is. But what if we were able to talk about it frankly, differently, as a part of life, as a part of our joyful journey truly with no end it could greatly aid us in this awe-filled transition. But it does test your faith, your beliefs. Regardless of belief in eternity, we still have to deal daily with our humanness.
Is talking about death enjoyable? I have not had this experience to date so I’m going with a sound “No”. (Unless you’re into macabre conversation.) But that speaks to our culture as well.
As far as my own experience no one ever taught me “how” to talk about death. But now I, perhaps, have more understanding. Well… enough to tip-toe into, a little more thoughtfully, the topic.
I have a friend who is winning her cancer battle. I am not being superficially hopeful here. She really is. She was in remission. She had to go back for treatment. The “numbers” are going in the direction of steep decline (that’s good by the way) of her sticking around for a long while. Praise God! (Absolutely a selfish praise because I stand to gain a lot of wisdom with her hanging out as we age.)
But she did say something to me the other day that stopped me. It was raw, honest, and filled with question…. She said, I’m afraid I’m going to die. I don’t want to die young.
And I was fourteen in my heart again. I wanted to whine and say “Stooooop!!!” But she and I have come too far in our spiritual journey together to fall for that one. As I write this, I can’t even remember what I said because I marvel at how courageous it is to be able to verbalize a fear like that. The depth, wisdom, and spiritual maturity… the faith she has to be able to say in the moment the simple truth of how she currently feels about it.
So no, I didn’t give her the teacher lecture of the self-ordained prophet, “That’s not going to happen.” For the truth is… we don’t know. And that, for humans to admit, is an act of painful humility. But again, to admit “we don’t know” can be hijacked into a prideful belief that said “not knowing” means you’re creating something “bad” that will happen because you didn’t “believe” and because your words are magicaaaaalllll. See how pride works?
And that’s where grounded-ness, the bravery to speak, the humility rises like the sun at dawn to take over where we are pitifully weak, takes flight. No. We. Don’t. know. (Regardless of your personal situation, healthy or no.) And in that frank admission we turn our backs on the superstition that circles speaking up with humility our humanness. We are not gods.
And we hate that. Because we want to know! (Stamps foot like a four year old.) We want to be little gods. We want to believe that we can just BELIEVE (always in all caps); that we can MAKE IT HAPPEN (Whatever your “it” is) and Voila! We are All Powerful and, as if treating acne with Windex, as the Greek father says in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, “There you go”.
It’s a steep fall because when you spend your life that way, on that mountain of Know-It-All, you’ll soon experience the sobering reality of your ultimate powerlessness. (If you’re lucky.)
I remember a pastor once speaking on this very topic about the preaching of “you create your own reality”. She used the example of cancer. What happens when you belieeeeeeved and said all your affirmations, (because when you say things they happen because you said them), and then… it didn’t work? Then is it your own fault you didn’t heal? Then where does that leave you? I remember her using the word “cruel” to describe that kind of “belief system”. I agree. There’s a seed of self-hatred buried in there.
But instead of getting into that, I just want to talk about how to talk about death.
I don’t know how to talk about death. Not perfect here. It’s scary. But if someone is giving you their raw, genuine, and honest feelings… whatever they may be about their perceived possibilities, you must allow them that space (without, of course, allowing it to devolve into an unhealthy trajectory of despair). My mother probably wouldn’t allow the topic of death to cross her threshold. (Again, like passing gas, it just didn’t exist.)
But this also is a danger. It is where loneliness is born. This is where evil gets a foothold and overtakes you with fear. And fear is the truest disease. Fear is real death.
Look at me attempting to give a how-to on talking about death! My Dad may not have gotten it right, but he didn’t get it wrong. He knew how much I loved him. How I was Velcro to his side. He knew I’d need warning. He was brave and spoke of the “D” word. He didn’t think that would bring it into being. He was well beyond that. He just got on with what will, at some point, happen to us all.
But with my friend it was more a moment of “I don’t want it to happen now. Not yet.”
That’s utterly fair.
I don’t either. So we pray and petition with thanksgiving and praise to our Good God that this good desire (for it is good) will be his as well. (For the record, I believe it is – and that’s no toxic positivity). And while we’re sticking to these prayers and seeking out his plan, we’ll focus on life even if we have to talk about death knowing that death is a word that means going to live LIFE with our Father forever. But we little humans have such a hard time sorting that out, I know.
We must be patient and have mercy on ourselves and each other. These pesky picayune fearful attacks wreak havoc. They are not of our good God. We must persevere. Keeping our eye on Jesus. Walking on water with Him.
I never once read about a crown of death in the good book.
There is only the Crown of Life.
So the question is, what do you say when someone presents you with such a raw and honest “share”? Trick question! You listen. You don’t try to fix it. You don’t return it with a Rah! Rah! that demeans the depth of the moment. Sometimes, oftentimes, you say nothing, but your presence and love says it all. Sometimes your friend just needs to hear their own words out loud in the presence of your love and support.
But when you speak, and you will, you will speak of love. (Because too long a silence will no doubt be commandeered by evil as affirmation of your friend’s fears. See how crafty evil is?) There is always wisdom in love. You silently ask the Holy Spirit to tell you what to say or not say. You get raw and real right back. “I don’t want you to die either. I want you around for a very long time. I am here for the journey. I’m not going anywhere. This is not over.”
And maybe that’s too much.
But when the time is right, and the moment has shifted, you then speak of the truth. You speak life. You speak of hope. And when your friend or, whomever it may be, is weak, you’ll speak of the strength you will hold for them. So that they can be whatever, however, they need to be.
You are not their savior, but you can point them to Him.
All the while you can intercede. You can stand in the gap.
You can hold the line.