It can be hard to talk about. Because there is an inner hurt we’d rather not reveal. And we don’t want to put other people in an embarrassing situation – even those who are most sympathetic. And of course they don’t really know what to say. And don’t want to upset us in return.
Death. Even the word itself can be one we want to avoid. So we find other ways of putting it. ‘He’s passed away.’ ‘She’s passed on.’ And those who have died become “the departed.”
Of course what these ways of speaking do express is the sense of loss. The tangible presence of the person we knew has indeed departed. Left us. Gone on in some way. The sense of absence is real. An aching void is left.
C.S.Lewis’ little book A Grief Observed, written as a kind of diary in the weeks following the death of his dearly beloved, lately married wife, Joy Davidman, expresses this more intensely and evocatively than anything else I know. The sense of separation. Of being cut off. Of true loss. (See reading below.)
Lewis himself is critical of the sentiment conveyed in those words of Henry Scott Holland that are often read at funerals, and which we so want to believe to be true. “Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away to the next room. I am I, and you are you. Whatever we were to each other, that, we still are.”
Death matters. And it has consequences, and impacts on us more than we would like to admit. In fact, if you read the whole sermon from which Holland’s words come, you find that that is exactly his view too. And he’s trying to illustrate the difficulty we have in letting go and the desire still to be in connection with the person who has died. And this is only natural. And an important thing to do. Because, of course, they were precious. And loved. And valued still.
And this is, if you like, the other side of the coin. Despite what Lewis says about the sense of loss in the early days (and as he himself comes to realise as time goes on), there are different kinds of connections that remain, or can be recognised with those who have died.
Some people I’ve talked to have a very real sense of the person still with them, in some sense. A sense of presence, if you like. For others it’s more a matter of memory (and not just memory in the head). But certain places, or times, or objects, or events, are very evocative of the person who’s died, and bring them to mind. In a way that can be painful. Or can be reassuring and comforting.
And then there is the way in which the person lives on through their example, their achievements and through the people whose lives have been shaped by having known them. And virtually every culture and religion honours the way in which life, and value and virtue, is passed on from one generation to another.
And it can be a very personal thing as well. The wish to recognize and keep alive the things that the person stood for, worked for, were part of. And the countless ways we have been influenced, enriched and changed by having shared life with them.
And I guess that’s part of what today is about. Acknowledging that you don’t get over losing someone. That the pain goes on in various ways, even when everyone else has forgotten and moved on. But that even as life does move on, it is important to remember and to celebrate and think about the person who has gone. And to hold on to all that was dear about them.
So we do that. But we also hold up a Christian perspective on things. That is to say, the shape of things we see in Jesus, which we got a taste of in our second reading from the Gospel of John. (See reading below.) Where Jesus is kind of looking ahead to his own death, and telling his disciples that in “a little while” they will no longer see him. And that as a consequence they will weep and mourn his loss.
This little dialogue is part of what is portrayed as a very long conversation between Jesus and his disciples, in the Upper Room, on the night before he was betrayed and arrested. The disciples don’t really understand what he is saying. But he tells them not only that he is leaving them, but that they must hold on to his teaching, and continue his work, and that most of all that they must love and care for one another, when he is gone. In these ways, he will continue to be present to the world.
But in addition to this, Jesus promises, without spelling out exactly how it will happen, that they will see him again in another “little while”, and then their pain will be turned into joy.
In one sense, Jesus is referring to his appearing to his disciples as the risen one in the days following Easter. But this is itself just the prequel and pointer to the resurrection life, the heavenly life if you like, that he will enter into after the ascension. The life that we can all enter because of the pathway he has carved out for us.
What it will be like, then, to see our loved ones again I cannot say. What I do know is that our departed loved ones don’t just live on in our memories. And though to be separated from them is so very hard, it is not a separation that will last for ever.
READING from ‘A Grief Observed’ by C.S.Lewis
We were setting out on different roads. This cold truth, this terrible traffic regulation (‘You, Madam, to the right – you, Sir, to the left’) is just the beginning of the separation which is death itself. And this separation, I suppose, waits for us all… ‘Alone into the Alone.’ She said it felt like that. And how immensely improbable that it should be otherwise. Time and space and body were the very things that brought us together; the telephone wires by which we communicated. Cut one off, or cut both off simultaneously. Either way, mustn’t the conversation stop?... It’s hard to have patience with people who say ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever it matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. I look up at the night sky. Is anything more certain than that in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch? She died. She is dead. Is the word so difficult to learn?
READING from John 16:16-22
Jesus said: ‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.’ Then some of his disciples said to one another, ‘What does he mean by saying to us, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me”; and “Because I am going to the Father”?’ They said, ‘What does he mean by this “a little while”? We do not know what he is talking about.’ Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, ‘Are you discussing among yourselves what I meant when I said, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me”? Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labour, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.’