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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

When a young person dies

One of the members of our own Hospice Team suffered the unexpected, sudden loss of a loved one at an early age. Those of us who deal with death and dying were undone by our shared grief and heartbreak for our co-worker.  I kept saying "He was only 37 years old." My Chaplain colleague kept saying, "I just keep thinking about that baby growing up without a daddy." We each had our own hooks on which we hung our grief. We were all asking each other: "What can we say? What can we do?" And, just as importantly, "What shouldn't we say or do?" So, when we gathered this morning for Team, we set aside a time to remember and pray. My chaplain colleague offered a beautiful, deeply meaningful, extemporaneous prayer which I wish I had recorded. It healed many broken hearts in that room. I read excerpts of the "Eulogy for Alex" by William Sloan Coffin, delivered to his congregation at Riverside Church in New York City in 1983, ten days after the sudden death of his 24-year old son. It's a eulogy I return to often as a resource. I offer these excerpts here for you.

As almost all of you know, a week ago last Monday night, driving in a terrible storm, my son--Alexander--who to his friends was a real day-brightener, and to his family "fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky"--my twenty-four-year-old Alexander, who enjoyed beating his old man at every game and in every race, beat his father to the grave.

Among the healing flood of letters that followed his death was one carrying this wonderful quote from the end of Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms":

"The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places."

My own broken heart is mending, and largely thanks to so many of you, my dear parishioners; for if in the last week I have relearned one lesson, it is that love not only begets love, it transmits strength.

When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister's house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking, middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, "I just don't understand the will of God." Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. "I'll say you don't, lady!" I said.

For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness. 

Which is not to say that there are no nature-caused deaths--I can think of many right here in this parish in the five years I've been here--deaths that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden, which for that reason raise unanswerable questions, and even the specter of a Cosmic Sadist--….

But violent deaths, such as the one Alex died--to understand those is a piece of cake. As his younger brother put it simply, standing at the head of the casket at the Boston funeral, "You blew it, buddy. You blew it." The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is "It is the will of God." Never do we know enough to say that.  

My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

That's why immediately after such a tragedy people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything, people who simply bring food and flowers--the basics of beauty and life--people who sign letters simply, "Your brokenhearted sister." 

In other words, in my intense grief I felt some of my fellow reverends--not many, and none of you, thank God--were using comforting words of Scripture for self-protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply couldn't face. But like God herself, Scripture is not around for anyone's protection, just for everyone's unending support.

And that's what hundreds of you understood so beautifully. You gave me what God gives all of us--minimum protection, maximum support. I swear to you, I wouldn't be standing here were I not upheld.

And of course I know, even when pain is deep, that God is good. "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Yes, but at least, "My God, my God"; and the psalm only begins that way, it doesn't end that way. 

As the grief that once seemed unbearable begins to turn now to bearable sorrow, the truths in the "right" biblical passages are beginning, once again, to take hold:
"Cast thy burden upon the Lord and He shall strengthen thee"; 

"Weeping may endure for the night but joy cometh in the morning"; 

"Lord, by thy favor thou hast made my mountain to stand strong"; 

"For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling"; 

"In this world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world"; 

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."
And finally I know that when Alex beat me to the grave, the finish line was not Boston Harbor in the middle of the night. If a week ago last Monday, a lamp went out, it was because, for him at least, the Dawn had come.

So I shall--so let us all--seek consolation in that love which never dies, and find peace in the dazzling grace that always is.