My family and I moved from our home in South Dakota in 1997 and traveled halfway across the country to Northern Virginia. I had grown up in the same small town there for almost 10 years, so this was an exciting but equally hard move for me. One of the most difficult things for me at the time was leaving my grandparents who I was very close to and facing the fact that I wouldn’t be able to see them whenever I wanted to anymore.
Both of my parents worked until late afternoon/early evening and faced long commutes, so for two years I attended an after-school care program at my elementary school. Since staying late at this program was normative, it was always a special treat when one of my parents got off work early and came to pick me up, because I knew that meant I would get to go home and have extra time watching TV or whatever it was I did back then.
I’ll never forget the day my father came to pick me up early from school one day. I was so excited to go home and have some extra fun. What I didn’t know was that this day was not going to be fun at all, but instead was going to be my first experience with death and mourning.
I remember walking in the door and seeing my mom sitting in the kitchen crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she gently put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Grandma went to sleep last night, and never woke up.”
Now, my little 10 year old mind had never comprehended death before – but I knew what it was. I instantly knew that this meant Grandma had passed away. After crying with my parents for a short time, I remember going up to my room and crying/thinking in solitude. And it was during that time alone that somehow my little brain genuinely convinced myself that what my mom actually meant was that Grandma had simply gone into a deep coma, that she didn’t really die. And so that was how I interpreted life for the next few days.
The night before I left for the funeral (somehow I didn’t realize that was what we were leaving for), my after-school counselor said to me, “Ben, I’m really sorry to hear about your Grandma’s passing.” Passing? I thought he was crazy! After all, Grandma hadn’t passed away, she was just asleep. So I ignorantly refuted him, “Dead!? No, not dead. She’s just in a coma. If she was really dead, I’d be a disaster!”
My father came to pick me up soon after, and I remember saying to him in the hallway at the school as we left, “Dad, isn’t it crazy that my counselor thought Grandma was dead? How crazy is that, right?”
Then I heard the words that my mind had been trying to shelter me from for three days.
No Ben. Grandma really did die.
I lost it. I broke down in the hallway and cried all the way home.
Now, you can chalk up my experience to the mental capacity of a 10-year-old and my inability at the time to process death. And I’m sure this is partially true. But I think my experience reveals something deeper about the reality of death: nobody ever gets used to it. Talk to anyone who deals with death on a regular basis (such as a soldier or a doctor/nurse) and they’ll tell you that nobody ever becomes adjusted to death, and if they do its because they’ve become numb to some other part of life as a coping mechanism.
See here’s the thing about death – it was never meant to be something we get used to because it was never supposed to be something we deal with. Death is an anomaly in creation; it shouldn’t exist.
But death does exist. Through our conspiracy and responsibility in the act of turning from God, we’ve brought the punishment of death, disease and decay upon ourselves.
For all the emphasis we have on justification and forgiveness of sins in the Christian life, I think we often forget the fact that through the work of Christ God is restoring all things to himself. He is making all things new. Read what Paul says in the first epistle to the Thessalonians:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14)
We need not grieve as those without faith in Christ would grieve. Because Jesus has overcome death and the grave, through faith we too share in his victory. Like Christ, we will rise and some day be glorified, being made like him as he makes all things new.
Christian, don’t forget that in the gospel we have much more than our forgiveness of sins – although certainly not less. Through the gospel we have all of Christ; his righteousness, his sonship, and his victory – even over death.