Dear Johanna: Thoughts on Death and Eternity

Dear Johanna,

What I am about to tell you is not very easy to say. You may not be ready to hear it, so your parents may wait before sharing. That is okay. That is part of why you have parents—to oversee your exploration and discovery of the world, which, though beautiful and wondrous can be shocking and bleak. I know that you need to see both sides—good and bad, light and dark—though it goes against my instincts to tell you something painful.

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Here’s the thing, Jo. People die. All over the world every minute of every day there are people who stop breathing. People who get in car accidents and have heart attacks. People who drown in hurricanes and floods, who are crushed in earthquakes, and whipped up in tornados. There are people who get sick. People who starve. People whose bodies give up for no reason. There are even people who die because of the actions of other people.

I know you know that life ends. You’ve read stories about Happily Ever Afters that begin with a tragic loss. You’ve seen movies in which children are orphaned or villains are destroyed. You’ve watched Daddy dressed in black as he leaves the house for a funeral. You may not have gone to a funeral yourself, may not really know what “funeral” means, but much like grace and mercy and baptism and communion, “funeral is one of those church words that is familiar as prayer in a pastor’s home. You know that funerals happen and that death is somehow involved.

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Death is actually a big part of church when you think about it, maybe more so than any other part of your life. Every year at Easter you hear the sad, sad story of how Jesus died on a cross. You may not understand atonement or sacrifice, but you do understand that when the dirges play and the church is decked in purple that it is a time for our hearts to feel heavy. You know that death is sad.

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I was six years old when I attended my first funeral. It was for my great Uncle Wilfred, who lived on a farm out in Juniata, Nebraska. There was a service in a small country church with the cemetery right next door. After the funeral, there was a gathering back at the house that included white and wheat sandwich squares, lemonade, cookies and all of the family members that I only saw at weddings and reunions. There seemed to be an air of happiness despite the fact that we had been gathered by death; some sort of joy in the midst of pain, like the rainbow that your daddy saw while we were driving in the van earlier that day. Death was a part of life. The end of life. And at six that made sense.

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At twenty-six it didn’t. At twenty-six I watched two characters tragically die on one of my favorite TV shows. And I know it must sound a little bit silly to be comparing fictional characters with members of my own family (well, maybe not to you, maybe you will understand), but I cried great tears at the tragedy of their deaths and for the spouses and children and siblings left broken. I had been to the funerals of four of my grandparents and a dozen family friends by this point, but I somehow believed that my fictional characters would be spared from a life cut short, that for as long as there was a story left to tell, they (and for that matter I) would be allowed to finish it out, to find the happy ending on this side of the earth-to-heaven transition.

Now two years later, death is even closer, not only because I am older, but because it has touched and taken the life of a friend. A friend with a story that seemed to only just be starting. His life ended abruptly, like a book torn in two, the final page reading with the potential to go anywhere. This death not only made me sad, Jo, it made me angry. The ultimate unfairness of it and of life here on this broken and beautiful and chaotic earth made me question the goodness and power of a God who would allow such a thing.

When someone is old and wearing out, when her sight and hearing fail or his legs no longer carry him, it is somehow easier to let go. It is a comfort to think of that person resting in a long peaceful sleep. We talk about those who die being reunited with friends and family who have also “passed away” (a phrase that means died, but doesn’t sound as shocking as death really is). But when the person is young and vibrant and full of unlived story, it is harder to cope. The unnaturalness of death is made shockingly clear by the breaking of relationships, the termination of dreams, the cessation of something that was never meant to end. It’s something I don’t understand no matter how hard I try.

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But here’s another thing, Jo. We adults expect children to just accept a lot of things. Even when those things don’t make sense. We expect that you will not eat peanuts when we tell you not to eat peanuts. We might try to explain the reason for this order—that you have an allergy to peanuts and if you ingest them your throat will swell up and feel all scratchy and we will have to use your epi pen and possibly take you to the Emergency Room (I’m sure you know all of this since it happened just last week)—but even if we don’t explain the reasoning behind it, we expect that you will obey. That you will believe we are right even when it means you can’t have peanut butter cookies or trail mix or granola or puppy chow or “ants on a log” or a PB&J. You understand the peanut rule because you are old enough to grasp the concept of cause and effect. You know that eating peanuts on a sundae might end up with you wearing a blue gown in the ER. But sometimes Jo, you won’t understand why we adults do what we do. It won’t seem fair. And even if we tried to explain our reasoning, it still wouldn’t make sense to your five-year-old mind.

Sometimes it’s like that with God. God does and doesn’t do things we don’t understand and for reasons we just cannot wrap our human minds around. And though someday, Jo, you will be an adult and capable of seeing why we chose to withhold things from you, put barriers around you, placed you in difficult situations and made you wait for what seemed like a terribly long time, you will never be God and neither will I. So we may never understand the activity of God. And God expects us to accept that. God expects us to obey and believe that God is right even when it means we don’t get what we want, what so clearly seems to be the absolute best case for everyone.

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It was like that with Jesus the night before he died. Death couldn’t possibly have seemed like the absolute best case for everyone, certainly not for Jesus, who did not want to die any more than you or I do. But he did. And God let that happen. God allowed pain and suffering that made no human sense.

But the story of Jesus does not end in death. It has one of those twisty-endings that you don’t quite see coming, (though the part of you that hopes believes death can’t possibly be the end), like the Beast transforming into a prince, Snow White being kissed back to breathing, or your beloved Sleeping Beauty awakening once more, the story of Jesus is one that ends in life.

From the Christian perspective that you’ll be raised in for the rest of your childhood, all death eventually ends in life. Death is merely a transition from life on earth to life in heaven. As you grow up, you’ll have all kinds of thoughts about what this means. You might picture heaven as a world in the sky with golden streets, feathery winged angels and a massive swimming pool (at least that is how I pictured heaven when I was your age). And then later you’ll deconstruct those thoughts like a massive pile of theological Legos, and rebuild entirely new ones. But before we get to heaven, there is this business of experiencing death.

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It will happen, that is inevitable. And it will not make sense, that too is inevitable. When someone tries to tell you that death is  a part of life, it is okay to accept that. But it is also okay to reject it. Death is something that happens to our bodies, but it is something for which our souls were not made. Our souls are eternal. They are forever. And when death and brokenness and finality hurts, it hurts because it goes against the forever that our souls were made to experience. That is something I try to remember when my spirit aches as if it had run into the corner of the counter at full speed and my heart feels shattered into a million little pieces. I try to remember that death—which is a part of this world we live in—only hurts because we were made to live in a different kind of world. I try to remember that someday I will be in the sort of world I was made for, and that until that day comes it is my job to make this world as much like that one as possible.

It is a big task to live up to, to accept death as a charge to bring more eternity into each day. Let’s do it together, you and I. We’re not meant to attempt it alone.

All my love,
Auntie Amanda

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4 thoughts on “Dear Johanna: Thoughts on Death and Eternity

  1. Amanda; I’m sorry for your loss. It hurts when those we love pass from this world into eternity. But thank you so much for sharing these words with the world… a world that needs to hear this. And as you cope with those feelings, if it helps at all, this may just be the singular best thing I have ever read about death and dealing with it.

    As I read through this piece, at moments I found myself transported to the side of C.S. Lewis as he makes abstract concepts so real and concrete in ways only he can do. Then at other moments, transported to my days when I watched Mr. Rogers as he treated us children like adults who can handle these emotions. Everything about this entry is just… so… perfect! I feel like I want to have this printed out on parchment and have you autograph it because it would certainly stand the test of time.

    Thank you again so much for sharing this with the world. It needs to hear it.

    God’s blessings out on the West Coast! Have you found any BBQ remotely close to KC BBQ? 🙂

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    • What kind words and generous compliments. It truly means a lot and blesses me greatly any time that my writing and experiences connect to someone in a meaningful way. Many, many thanks for sharing such great encouragement.

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