Somewhere, in one of his books, Stanley Hauerwas asks why it is that we experience the death of a child as tragic and the death of an old person as not tragic. As I recall, part of his answer was that the death of a child, as opposed to the death of an older person, seems tragic because the child’s life ended before the child’s story did.
I call this kind of loss the loss of prospects and by that I mean the prospects for the future with the loved one who has died.
We imagine the future of our children. We see them growing up, going to college, getting married, having babies for us to spoil. We imagine a future as a home movie not yet made. We create a story.
Ah, even out there in the future, God is in his heaven and all is…
“How could this have happened?”
“We had so much we looked forward to.”
“ I wanted to see her finish college, get married, have a family…”
A friend of mine whose 40-year-old brother had died told me about how full of life his brother had been.
“The guy could make anything with his hands,” he said. “He was building these beautiful bookshelves for his den and just keeled over and died. You would have thought that God would have let him at least finish those damned bookshelves.”
The sawdust on the floor. The hammer against the wall. The bag of nails. The stacks of wood. The cold silence.
Indeed, you would have thought…
Everybody dies in the midst of some project they’d hoped to see through and that we’d hoped to see through with them.
Not long ago, I pondered the words of James (and I paraphrase) , “Listen, do not say ‘Today or tomorrow I will go to such and such a place, and there I will do business, and there I will make money.’ Who are you to say such a thing? Why you do not even know that tomorrow will come! After all, what is your life if not a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes? Instead, you might consider saying this: ‘If the Lord wills, I will do thus and such.’ Anything more than that comes from the evil one.”
Strong words there at the end. Why is that statement ‘evil?’ I think it is because it suggests that we as mere mortals not only think we have all the time in the world but that we act as if we have all the time in the world. and that we control time AND outcomes.
We think the same about our loved ones.
Creating projects for ourselves or planning to do thus and such with this kind of wonderful outcome may, at some deep level, be one way we stave off death.
Surely the reaper will not show before I get my own grass cut! Surely, I will not be taken to the curb before I get the garage cleaned out.
“Ah, now I will take mine ease,” quipped Mr. Bigger Barns as he kicked back in his Lazy Boy.
“He looked so peaceful,” said his wife who found him the next morning. “We had so looked forward to…”
I riff on a proverb that someone told me is a bit of AA wisdom: “Expectations are the mother of disappointment, the father of resentment.”
It is not uncommon for the grieving to feel disappointed, resentful, angry. “How could such a thing have happened? We had plans!”
I see myself getting up from this computer and walking the wee hounds in a few minutes. I’m waiting for the rain to let up. Then I have to take the garbage to the curb and get to work on a syllabus on the Gospel of Matthew. (How does anyone teach that in one semester?)
I can’t not do it. Neither can you.
I think of that good old .38 Special song:
“Hold on loosely
But don’t let go;
If you cling too tightly,
You’re going to lose control.”
Envisioning a future together is inevitable, maybe even necessary…Maybe it is a good thing. But hold on loosely…It is risky business.
The future we see so clearly may not be the future we hoped for.
And being the one who is left behind hurts like hell.
And we who are left behind with them, we who are called alongside, may find that we listen to them but only hear ourselves.
*If anyone knows the Hauerwas reference, I’ll be happy to supply it. I gave a lot of books away and now all I have is my memories of them!