No one is ever really ready for the death of a loved one, whether it’s an aging parent or a sibling whose life is cut short prematurely. This reality was brought home to me when two of my aunts (Fredrena and Loupenn), my mother’s sisters, both died within a few months of each other. While we all have faith that they are going to a better place, a place where we might again see them, we just don’t know what will happen to our loved ones — or ourselves — after our bodies have died. Only God really knows. The one thing we can be sure of is that death is the final retort to the life we know and cherish.
Both of my aunts lived full and complete lives, well into their eighties and nineties, with children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. But when my aunt Loupenn died recently, I felt no less pain in knowing that her life had achieved its full and final measure. Perhaps it was the look on my mother’s face when I arrived in Marion, South Carolina, to be with family and attend to the details of the funeral. Her face bore a peculiar and unfamiliar look of pain and resignation that told me that she had finally accepted not only the finality of her sister’s death, but the imminent approach of her own. My mother’s generation has reached its winter season; once the chain of life is broken within a family — especially in quick succession, as it was with my aunts’ passings — those of her generation can’t help but wonder if it’s only a matter of time for them.
For the living, especially those in the spring and summer of our lives, we often act as if life will go on forever. We are constantly making plans for the future, whether short or long term, but rarely taking into account the eventuality of our deaths. In our society, preparing for our own death is merely an afterthought, a contingency plan made to cover the risks inherent in a life of indeterminate duration. When a loved one dies, however, we often experience excruciating pain and feelings of loss, even if the death was natural and predictable. As we sit in the pews listening to the preacher’s account of the lives of a loved one, reduced to a few words of kindness and grace, we begin to consider our own mortality.
These little deaths, these reductions in certainty, challenge our routines and imprint themselves upon our identities. Every morning in the 25 years since my father died, I have called my mother immediately after waking up and conferenced my brothers in on the call. Over the years, this ritual of gratitude has evolved beyond the bounds of duty and attained the force of habit. As hard as I might try, I cannot fathom a life in which I am not able to hear my mother’s voice on the other end of the line. However, even as such a reality challenges my imagination, my rational mind knows that the day will come.
As a person of middle age and (to my knowledge) great health, the passing of my parents’ generation holds special significance. It means that, very soon, my siblings and I will attain senior status within our families. All of those who have come along behind us — sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — will begin to look to us for guidance and wisdom. I am humbled by this daunting reality and am becoming aware of its consequences.
On the one hand, the natural progression of life holds that one generation paves the way and then gives way to the next. This inexorable changing of the guard brings with it its own set of rewards and challenges. As we age, our bodies — even if well cared for — eventually break down. This decline often takes years to reach its final stage, where finally the body can no longer function. But with every birth among the ensuing generations, we are reminded of our younger selves and the miracle of life.
Perhaps the most formidable challenge that death poses to our faith is its seeming finality. In many religious and cultural traditions, the uncertainty over what happens to us when we die is subsumed in various rituals: the funeral pyre, the eulogy, ancestral worship, mummification, and on and on. Without such rituals, the loss would be too shocking and too irredeemable for many of us to go on living.
But while faith can ease our feelings of grief and loss, it rarely grants us the absolute intellectual certitude we crave. There is no way for the living to measure or investigate the world we pray our loved ones may inherit after this one; ours is an inheritance of loss.