Relating to Death
“God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living…for God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world” (Wisdom 1:13,2:23-24).
Death is perhaps the greatest mystery of life. The Second Vatican Council eloquently states:
“It is in the face of death that the riddle of human existence grows most acute. Not only is man tormented by pain and by the advancing deterioration of his body, but even more so by a dread of perpetual extinction. He rightly follows the intuition of his heart when he abhors and repudiates the utter ruin and total disappearance of his own person. He rebels against death because he bears in himself an eternal seed which cannot be reduced to sheer matter. All the endeavors of technology, though useful in the extreme, cannot calm his anxiety; for prolongation of biological life is unable to satisfy that desire for higher life which is inescapably lodged in his breast” (Gaudium et Spes no. 18).
The great mystery of death and grief are intertwined – two sides of the same coin. Grief is always preceded by a death. What that death was determines the nature of a person’s grief. The loss of a priceless family heirloom in a fire causes a particular kind of grief which mourns the history, meaning, and memories the heirloom symbolized. The loss of a job induces a grief which mourns the loss of stability, family security, and future dreams that are now compromised. The death of a loved one also causes a unique grief. This grief is the greatest because it is not an object or position which is lost, but a person that has died. The fact of death and the grief that follows are important to acknowledge, but the mere fact of acknowledging it only leaves one with more questions. Where did death come from? Why is there death? How should I respond to the death of loved one or to the absolutely certain fact that I will also someday die? These are important questions, and ones that deserve thorough answers. This article will take up these questions, as well as reflect on the nature of death and grief, and how to live with hope in the face of death and grief.
Peter Kreeft, in his book Love is Stronger than Death, offers a succinct and clear philosophical reflection on death. He posits that there are five faces or masks that death wears. Each mask corresponds to the possible human responses each person has in relation to death. The fives masks or faces are:
- Death as Stranger
- Death as Enemy
- Death as Friend
- Death as Mother
- Death as Lover
The first two faces of Death as Stranger and Death as Enemy are two horns of the same animal. These relationships to death are the most common reactions all people have to death. People generally take a path of avoiding and ignoring death as if it didn’t exist. Pleasure, power, success, and comfort are prominent features for Death as Stranger. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor 15:32). If death cannot be ignored, then it must be conquered as an enemy. The scientific enterprise originated from Christians in the Scholastic, Medieval and Enlightenment eras out of the quest to better understand the glory of God’s creation. In the present time, it is largely motivated by a desire to totally eliminate suffering and escape death using any means necessary.
Treating death as a stranger or as an enemy is ultimately futile. Death is absolutely certain for every single human person. Rather than trying to conquer death or run from death, wisdom is found in turning toward it and facing it with the courage of faith and hope. This first act of acknowledging death’s certainty is important because it frames our human life according to reality rather than an illusion, and it allows for a recasting of death’s influence over an individual’s life. Death no longer has to be something to be feared, but rather has the potential to bring value and meaning to a person’s life. This is the basis of Death as Friend, Mother, and Lover.
Death as Friend begins when a person stops avoiding, ignoring, or fighting the fact of death, but turns and faces it. The mere act of facing death does not defeat death, but changes the terms of the relationship a person has with death. Death is a friend because it frames life, which in turn gives definition and meaning to life’s activities, aspirations, and relationships. An object’s value is directly related to how rare, necessary, or useful it is. Life is this way too. It is most precious when we realize its fleeting duration. Death is a friend because it gives us something – perspective. Death defines what is important or not important, what is of value and what is not worth our time. Of all the moments and interactions of a person’s life, death concentrates and presents to a person the people and priorities that are most important.
Death as Mother, like that of friend, is a positive relationship to death. Death is like a doorway or a preparation. When a person is born, they move from one experience of life in the womb to another experience of life outside of the womb. Life prior to birth is a preparation for life after birth, and birth is the door which a person enters this new world. Life after birth is an expanded life with greater freedom and a multitude of possibilities. Death is also like birth in this manner. The entirety of a person’s life, in a way, is preparation for what comes after death. Christian faith arouses the hope that death is just a beginning to a greater, complete, and perfect life that has no end.
One of the most painful aspects of pregnancy loss is that our children did not develop and enter into life fully, but died before they were ever born. This sharp, painful sorrow highlights the importance of a child’s time in the womb to develop, grow and prepare for life after birth. It also teaches a valuable truth to us as we mourn the loss of our children. We too will pass from this life, through death, into the mystery beyond death. They have preceded us in this “second birth.” Without taking away the difficulties and suffering of grief, there is consolation in knowing our greatest treasure – our children – are in heaven where, “Neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:20-21).
Death as Lover is the final relationship to death. Death completes life. In a way it fixes and defines a person’s life. Death is the end of personal freedom, communication, and possibility. It is complete solitude. These truths about human life and death leave two and only two possibilities. Either death is the end of existence, or it is the beginning of eternity. The answer is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. In the Incarnation, Jesus assumed human nature in its fullness but without sin (which is not part of created human nature). Because of this, Jesus was able to open a path for humanity to follow him with the aid of grace. This path could have taken many routes, but according to the Wisdom of the Father, Jesus mapped this path to journey through death rather than around it. But why? Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) states it like this:
“Death, which, by its very nature, is the end, the destruction of every communication, is changed by [Jesus] into an act of self-communication; and this is man’s redemption, for it signifies the triumph of love over death. We can put the same thing another way: death, which puts an end to words and to meaning, itself becomes a word, becomes the place where meaning communicates itself” (Behold the Pierced One, p 25).
By Jesus’ death, humanity’s freedom and self-communication are preserved. This means that love remains intact despite the certainty of the event of death. In short, love conquers death! The Divine Love of God “punches a hole” in the barrier of death which separates us from God and from our loved ones which have gone before us in death. The divine drama of salvation transformed death into a consummation, a meeting of love. The great hope we have is that death is no longer something to be feared because in death we meet Love itself!
It is not easy to view death, grief, and the painful sorrow of loss with hope. It requires prayer. In some ways, as Peter Kreeft mentions in his book, prayer is nothing else than the preparation for death. What we do temporally on earth in prayer is a precursor to what we will do for all eternity. Heaven, as far as it has been revealed to us by God, is one complete, pure act of communion and worship with God, His angels, and His saints. Prayer and worship are essential elements to encountering God, both in this life on earth, and as preparation for death and eternal union with God in eternity. This will be the topic of our next article.
Reflect on the nature of death:
Death entered the world because of the devil’s envy (Wisdom 2:24) and was not part of God’s original plan for creation. Humanity became subject to death because of Adam and Eve’s Original Sin (Genesis 3:1-24). While the wage of sin is death (Romans 6:23), we do not experience death as a direct correlation or effect of any particular personal sin (Luke 13:1-5).
- Do I carry a sense of guilt because of the events of my pregnancy or my child’s death?
- Do I have power and authority over death, or am I at the mercy of death along with the rest of humanity?
- Have I given this sense of guilt or responsibility for my child’s death to God yet?
- Read Gaudier et sees no 18 and 22.
How can my grief take on meaning? What are ways that I can begin to make grief and my child’s death holy? Where can I find comfort and consolation amidst the pain and sorrow of my grief?
Jesus’ death paid our penalty for sin, and his Resurrection grants us and our children access to eternal life. Pray:
Lord, Jesus Christ, through the sake of your sorrowful passion, have mercy upon me, my child/children, and my whole family. Through the blood and water that gushed from your heart as a fount of mercy and love, heal me of any guilt that I still carry in my soul because of my encounter with death in the loss of my child. Restore me to your love and your peace, and may your grace and presence never leave me for all the days of my life when at last I will be reunited with you and my son/daughter. I pray this, Jesus, in your most holy name. Amen!