In England, we rarely talk about death. It would perhaps be considered bad manners. Even when we know someone has lost a close friend or relative, we are uncomfortable confronting it and avoid using words such as “dead’ or “died”. We do not often see dead bodies and when we do they have usually been ‘modified’ by the undertaker and made up to look as if they are merely asleep. I am not sure this is terribly helpful.
I don’t really want to discuss the death of someone else. In my experience, the death of someone we love is like a physical wound which leaves a scar. It never really gets better. I have never found the belief that they are somewhere better, free from pain and troubles, to be particularly comforting. Maybe I am just way too selfish, but basically I just want them back with me.
However, I do think that considering ones own death is a worthwhile pursuit. Lets face it, we all have a ‘Use By’ date, even though we try to avoid thinking about it. Death is not an unexpected accident, we are all designed to die, it is what was intended when you were created. You are not just a lump of flesh, there is more to you than that. So consider for a moment what that means.
I did not ever think about death until my Dad died. He died on a bank holiday (note to self: avoid dying on a bank holiday, everything shuts and relatives have no one to ask for help.) His body therefore remained in his bedroom for most of the day and I found myself alone with it for a while. I had previously said that I did not want to see his body, preferring to remember him alive. However, in the event, I had no choice as the body was there and we needed to sort out things in the room. It taught me something important. Dad was not there. I was not in a room with a dead parent, I was in an empty room with a discarded body. That was an entirely different thing and made the whole burial bit much easier because it was not ‘Dad’ going in the ground, it was just his body.
I was forced to confront death again when I found I had a brain tumour. I was advised that a feature of that particular cyst was ‘sudden instant death’ but that removing it involved some brain damage and possibly would be fatal, so they would just monitor it unless it looked to be obviously dangerous. This was something of a shock. I was not planning on dying until much older. It did though make me think about what death meant and I believe it made me live better. Knowing that you may well die tomorrow really makes you live today carefully. It also helps you to keep things in perspective. If someone was rude to me it mattered less – I might be dead the next day, that was bigger!
It also made me really sort out what I believed. I did not want to die (I still don’t actually) but what was I worried about? What did I actually believe about God and eternal life? This became especially urgent in 2014, when the cyst changed and I began to develop hydrocephalus and be dangerously ill. The surgeon decided he needed to operate within a few days. He was very open about the fact that there was a risk of dying during the operation (even though he assured me the odds were in my favour!) I now had to be sure that what I claimed to believe about God was true. It is one thing to trust that God will lead you through life, it is another to trust that he will look after your children for you should you die. Could I trust that God loved my family even more than I did? That if I weren’t there he would take care of them? I did not actually have any choice about having the operation – I would probably not have survived without it, so these were issues that I could not ignore. There was also no point in fooling myself. If what I believed about God was not true, now was the time to face it. I did not want a ‘sop’ that wasn’t real, pretending would be worse than pointless.
I know that friends and family were praying for me and actually, the amount of prayer was quite overwhelming. When I was actually in hospital, I felt God’s presence like never before. I felt I could almost have reached out and touched him, it was a physical presence, like being surrounded in warm cotton wool. I cannot now, after the event, talk about the operation without talking about God. (Much to the surprise of my hairdresser, postman, lady at the bus stop…….) I did not though, receive any kind of ‘message’ or assurance that I would not die during the operation. I think God knew that I needed to be prepared, whatever the outcome. I had to trust him completely, even if that involved dying before I wanted to. It was still scary (I cannot describe how I felt as I walked from the ward to the operating room, but it was not something I want to repeat) but it also was not full of despair. It was weirdly peaceful in a strong way.
My point is this. You may not believe in God, that is your absolute right. But you definitely ought to sort out what you DO believe and you need to be sure that when you die it is right.
Even people who claim to be christians, seem to avoid talking about death. I was interested that even when people knew I was having the operation, only two people actually mentioned death (apart from the doctors, who kept asking me to sign consent forms and disclaimers!) Why are we so uncomfortable mentioning something which is inevitable?
In the Bible, Jesus often spoke about death, even when people really wanted him to talk about other things. When one man came to be healed, Jesus first forgave his sin. Why? I think because that was the most important thing. If the story had ended there, he still would have done what was best for the man. We read that he only then continued to physically heal the man because that helped the people who were watching. It was not crucial for the man himself. (You can read this story in the Bible, Matthew chapter 9.)
The quote I love most from C S Lewis is the one that says, “You do not have a soul. You are a soul, you have a body.” If that is true, if we are more than a bundle of flesh, then we cannot be what we are intended to be unless we die.
I have watched many ducklings hatch. They can never become a proper bird and swim away unless they first struggle out of that egg. That is what I believe about death. It is not terrifying (other than that the unknown is always a bit frightening), it is what needs to happen for us to become who we are intended to become. I survived this operation but I will die one day. So will you. What is it about our own death which scares us?
In the Bible, the only times that ‘after death’ is mentioned, it sounds more like a party than a church service! Actually, when things are going badly or we are depressed, it can be a comfort to remember that we are temporary, that this life is not intended to be the only existence that we will know.
I do believe absolutely that our time of dying is a matter for God. It is too big a decision for us. (I think this applies to prolonging life indefinitely as well as ending it prematurely. We should not mess around with some things. I don’t think humans should have to carry the weight of those decisions.)
So, I challenge you to think about your own death. Not in a morbid, ‘Goth’ manner. But openly and honestly. What worries you about it and can this be resolved before it is too late? I wrote the story below, based on my own imagination, my understanding of what the Bible implies and seeing my Dad’s body. I wrote it because I don’t think dying has to be horrible. As I said, I do not want to die, not today anyway, but I do believe that when I do it will not be because of some cosmic mistake. We do not know what comes next but we can prepare for it.
by Anne E Thompson
We all died together. That in itself is not especially surprising, given the number of families that will only travel abroad together. The very opposite of the royal family, who preserve their heirs by travelling separately. However, the manner of death is unimportant, it is the death itself which may be of interest.
It began with the light. An enticing, beckoning, light which could not be ignored. I have heard surgeons discuss the image of a light that the brain manufactures as it begins to shut down. This was not a simulation or physical aberration, this was real. I was unable to resist but nor did I want to and I left my body without a thought, hastening towards the light. Pause a moment. Think about the significance of that. My body, which I had fretted over, spent money colouring my hair, spent time applying make up and agonising over for decades and I left it without a second thought. I didn’t need it anymore you see. Like a much loved bike when you learn to drive, or your childhood bedroom abandoned on the day you marry – no longer necessary, no longer needed. I discarded it as easily as I shed my pyjamas at the start of a day.
I could not ignore the light you see. Imagine a shaft of late autumn sunlight that takes you by surprise so you lift your face and for a moment, all you can feel is the gentle warmth and through your closed eyelids you see brightness imprinted on your retina. A light that just for a moment obliterates all other thoughts and makes you smile, glad to just exist. That is something like the light that called me forwards.
As I drew closer there were sounds too. At first I couldn’t discern if it was one or many, merging and tangling, like the drops in a waterfall that unite to create a roar. It was a good sound, I knew that, even though I would be incapable of describing it. The sound and the light both drew me, I wanted to become part of them, be suffused in them.
I knew the others were with me, but in an undefined, unimportant way. Think of when you are engrossed in a film in the cinema, you know who is sitting next to you but are only vaguely aware of them. All attention is focused forward, you are fully absorbed in the film and any interruptions from other people is unwanted, irritating even. I don’t think I even glanced at them, I was just aware that they were alongside me, travelling with me towards the light.
I don’t know when I became aware that the light was God. Maybe I had known from the beginning. I was aware that I was slowing though, the feeling of longing also mingling with awe, fear even. How could anyone approach with anything other than trepidation? I began to become aware of ‘me’ again. Not the physical, discarded form, but the things I had done, the unworthiness of my life and my advance became ever slower, more reticent. Could I, dare I approach? Everything within me longed to continue, to join that light and the sound. I knew it would complete me. But now there was also a touch of fear, a stone of doubt that cast sharp pricks of worry.
Would I be rejected? Was it possible that I might be finally and everlastingly accepted when I had so often lived foolishly, made selfish choices that hurt people and become so absorbed in my own wants and desires that I had frequently ignored God’s voice, not even thinking of looking to him for guidance. The numerous times I had judged God by the irritating people who attended church, the unwillingness to separate God and man’s flawed religions. The moments when I had demanded the right to ‘be happy’.
Then I realised that he was with me. Indistinct, but very present. I could not see him yet I knew him and knew he had been with me for some time. Years even, certainly before I had died. I could not describe his appearance, though I knew he had been wounded, destroyed even and somehow recovered. And I knew he was kind, compassion flowed from him, reassuring me.
There were voices now, whispering, hissing, accusing,urging me to stop.
“You are not good enough. We all know what you did. We can see what you used to think,feel, want. Selfish…..thoughtless……greedy…….”
The voices combined and swelled, filling me with dread. They were true. All that they said was true.
Yet still I progressed. Slower now, still unsure, but urged forward by him at my side.
As I approached the light I began to understand. Only the pure could join the light and I was not good enough. I never had been. But he by my side, who had joined me on my journey, was good enough for both of us.