The death of a stranger

Jul 26th, 2012 | By | Category: Spirituality

A softly spoken Ulsterman at home in the Dublin mountains, I met him only once, four or five years ago. Gentle, warm, unconventional, the traditions of his upbringing had been left far behind; his journey had carried him much further than the journeys of others in his family.

There had been an awareness of his surviving serious illness in the past, but we assume medical science will always be up to meeting the challenges we face. A few days ago, our daughter had contacted his daughter about them meeting. His daughter had said her father was in his final days. This morning news came of his death; a premature death, an unfair death.

Had he even reached the age of 50? His family are still young, teenaged. The desolation they must feel is inexpressible.

Religious people slip easily into cliches, vacuous comments, empty platitudes; never more so than when someone dies. Funeral sermons are the worst, there is an urge to stand up and tell the preacher to just shut up. Why can’t things be called as they are? An acknowledgement of what it is that people really feel would at least have integrity.

I hate death. I hate all the euphemisms we use for it. I hate watching the grief and the pain. I hate the emptiness that is still there years afterwards. I hate the silly words of Saint Francis in his ‘Canticle of the Sun’.

We praise You, Lord, for Sister Death.

Praise God for death? Would Francis have been so favourably disposed if he had been married with a teenaged family? Tradition says Francis died while preaching; not lying in a bed where illness deprived him of life, inch by inch.

Tom Stoppard’s character Guildenstern protests at presentations of death and expresses a sense of the emptiness it creates:

It’s just a man failing to reappear, that’s all – now you see him, now you don’t that’s the only thing that’s real: here one minute and gone the next and never coming back – an exit, unobtrusive and unannounced, a disappearance gathering weight as it goes on.

That’s death: someone we loved, gone. A disappearance that deepens with the passing years.

Francis got it wrong when he spoke of our ‘Sister Death’: one cannot regard with fraternal affection something so inexpressibly dark. Saint Paul better captures the mood of those of us who would seethe at preachers’ platitudes, those of us who would stand in churchyards and question meaning and rage at the injustice of mortality.Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:26, ‘The last enemy to be destroyed is death’. No sisterly regard from that apostle, no ambiguity, death is an enemy, death is to be destroyed. Destroyed, not greeted.

May the day come when no teenaged girl need ever again mourn the death of her dad.

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  1. Thank you Ian for this very honest, and straight forward post right from your heart. Death, whether swift like a bolt of lightening, or the long lingering inch by inch disintegration of the body, it still leaves behind a gaping hole in the lives of a young family. It is certainly not for praising or indeed glorifying.

    You know, I sometimes question modern medicine and the rush to sustain life when in fact we are only delaying the event of death. With this delay, the patient is often existing in a half world of a drug induced stupor that only camouflage the pain. Morphine does not kill pain, it only makes it like it does not matter.

  2. The thing that most annoys me is the attitude that through palliative care death can be ‘managed’. It might be possible to partly manage the process of dying; it is never possible to manage death.

  3. Oh Ian you write again so deeply from your heart. Those words strike such a chord in me. I was only 7 and there had been no illness. Death was very final and life changing at that age. I still remember him very clearly and see so many aspects of him in my sons. My prayers and sympathy to Miriam’s friend and her family. Your words are always such a balm and blessing.

  4. I am always filled with admiration for children who cope with a death in the family.

    The news this morning seemed to bring an overwhelming sadness – perhaps it evoked a whole complex of personal fears.

  5. My husband’s only sibling died suddenly aged 42 and left behind a young wife & 2 young sons – that was almost 12 years ago but the shock of his sudden & untimely death never really left me – a sudden death is quite different to one which you are somewhat prepared for though no matter how well prepared you think you are death always comes as a shock & you just know your life will never be the same again.

  6. I think Tom Stoppard’s point about the experience deepening would be reflected in the experience of your husband’s nephews; all the milestones they would pass when their friends’ dads would be there and they would realize their dad was missing.

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