Embracing the mystery of life and death
Saturday, 31 October 2015, was an overcast day. I went for my dressing change at 9 am. I was headed with Lori to a funeral service for a person I had met through work, Jelena Markovic Wilson. Jelena was 31 years young, and a new mother, and some months after her son Eli was born, she was diagnosed with cancer. She passed away on 26 October. I had worked with both her mother Nada and Jelena. My daughter Caitlin had as well. I really had to go to this funeral.
After the dressing change Lori and I made our way to the Henry Walser Funeral Home in Kitchener. We arrived, signed the register and made our way into the chapel. I saw people that I knew from the office. I was able to embrace Nada and express my sorrow and regrets. The funeral was liturgical and was filled with the Christian Scriptures. I was blessed by the ease and gentleness of the priest who officiated the service, and of his remarkable memory in reciting John chapter 14. I felt the tangible presence of God in that room and I also felt the comfort of the Holy Spirit throughout the one hour service. There were many tears and sullen faces, and understandably so. It seems to be all the more prevalent when it is a funeral for a youth or young adult cut off in the prime of life. It seems to shake people at the core of who they are.
For some, this is as close as they dare come to thinking about their own mortality
There are those people in gatherings like this one, who come to show their love and support of the grieving family and loved ones, and there are others who come for a variety of personal reasons, including having known the deceased in some way or capacity. When I gazed across the room, I saw people in their twenties and thirties and forties who wept openly. I sat their thinking of my own mortality, which of late I have done a considerable amount of reflection on my life and the battle that is being currently waged.
I could not help thinking and wondering what people were thinking that morning, as the priest recited Scriptures, illustrated his message of resurrection hope and life with pertinent illustrations. What were people thinking? What were their thoughts of that young 31 year old lying in the casket? What were their thoughts about their own lives and how they had lived their lives up until that moment? Perhaps the healthiest thing for people at a time like this, is that they have a tangible moment to grieve a loved one and at the same time confront their own mortality, and the illusion that we can postpone death. When a 31 year old dies to the ravages of cancer, it forces you heart and mind to deal with the mystery of life and the mystery of death. The inexplicable reality of death was written over so many faces. Totally perplexed and without words to even attempt to speak or address it.
People are faced with the meaning of life when they are confronted by death
We live in a death denying culture. This culture pervades even the church culture and is society and how it copes with death, has dramatically impacted how the Church responds and interacts within this culture and the denial of death. From funeral homes and how bodies are prepared and preserved for a memorial service, to how people go through a view at a funeral home, the whole experience becomes cosmetic, like an attempt to cover up what is really going on when you are part of a funeral. Bodies undergo preparation for burial, and are “dolled” up to look lifelike, and comforting to the eye. The viewing gives everyone an opportunity to visit with family and friends of the deceased and recall memories and share stories and offer comfort to the grieving family. This allows people to prepare for the separation that comes with the burial of their beloved family member and friend. I understand why this takes place, but I am not comfortable in accepting the rationale behind it.
My brother’s death and burial taught me more about my faith and death and dying than anything else ever could
I am the eldest in my family of origin. Paul was next in line. We were two and half years apart. I was five, and Paul was two and a half when he burst his appendix, and was rushed to the hospital, where he died on the operating table. At the time we were living in eastern France in the Vosges mountains, in St. Die, a city founded by Irish missionary monks. My family were missionaries to this area and had planted an Assemblies of God church. The death of Paul devastated not only our family but the whole congregation. Little blue eyed and blond haired Paul had died. We all wept and wailed and cried. We were all gripped with his sudden passing. As per the custom of the day, our family took my brother’s body to one of our congregant’s homes, where funeral preparations were made by the church family.
All the women prepared my brother’s body. He was washed and dressed in his suit. He was made to look like his normal self. People wept. I balled and wanted to hug him, and I fought the men who were trying to hold me back. My mother saw what was happening and came to me and brought me over to table where he lay. I caressed him. I kissed his hand. I told Paul I loved him. I wept bitter tears. As a five year old, I learned to grieve that day. I learned that a funeral is the remembering of a loved one, and that it is also understanding the separation that comes at death. I knew that Paul’s body was present, but I also knew that he was gone. The life spark had left his body. I knew this. I even prayed and asked Jesus to take care of my little brother until I could see him again in heaven. There was a lot more wailing after I prayed that one line prayer.
My life was forever changed through this experience. I understood at a personal level what death does to a family. I would experience this again when I had to bury my own daughter, Carragh. I understood my mother and father in a new way, losing a child like that. For my brother it was a failed surgery. For Carragh it was a seven year battle with cancer. The impact was the same. A parent having to bury their child. You never shake that.
Saturday reminded me of separation and reunion and the battle that we wage
Seeing that casket, and seeing the family and friends of Jelena, really stirred up memories in me. I looked at Nada and Savo and thought of all the pain a parent goes through having to bury a child. Carragh would have been the same age as Jelena. They were both born in 1984. That was a punch to my stomach. It wasn’t my own pain at the loss of Carragh, it was simply the loss a parent feels. I was almost overcome with inexplicable grief. It was so wrong.
Cancer is such a demonic disease. It is the great devour of the victims it claims. It ravages and destroys and takes no prisoners. The fight against it is a fight to the death, the death of the disease of the death of those affected by it. I resist this disease with all that I have within me, and with the power of God that resides in my body. I stand against it in Jesus’ Name and in His blood that was shed for my salvation and healing. I will not yield to it. I will resist it and I will fight it. I will intercede and pray for all those that God brings across my path, to see them healed and restored to health and made well through the power of the resurrected Christ!
I had to retreat and find that place where I could just be by myself and my thoughts
After the funeral I asked Lori if we could just go home and pass on the reception. She was fine with that. We came home and took our lunch to the basement. I listened again to the song that I had listened to a few times during the week, His Eye is On The Sparrow. I teared up again.
I asked Lori if she wanted to watch the movie with Whoopie Goldberg, Sister Act 2: Back In The Habit (1993). The song, His Eye Is On The Sparrow, is part of the soundtrack. It would be a great way for us to remember Jelena and Carragh and pay tribute to their memories. We did this throughout the years, on significant days, like Carragh’s birthday, or the anniversary of her death, we would go and watch a movie together. This felt just like that. It was a way for Lori and I to celebrate Jelena and her life. So we watched this movie and it was fantastic. It had a great message on overcoming adversity, something that really ministered to me on a personal level. It was very therapeutic.
Carrying on the good fight of faith 24/7
During the remainder of the day and evening, the peace of God came over me, and I was thankful to God for the lives of these people. I prayed for the families and friends where were grieving. I determined in my heart to be moved not just to compassion but to action, and to minister to people whenever the opportunity presented itself. I was and am determined to take the fight to the enemy of our souls. I will not be shaken. I will not be moved. I will be an agent of grace, hope, love and healing in the lives of people. I will seek to make a difference for the Lord and His Kingdom on the earth.