For someone who has never had a life-threatening illness or injury, I feel like I am well acquainted with death.
My first experience with death was, as is the case with many children, the loss of a beloved pet. Ruff, a big black collie and something or other mix, had come to live with us when he was a puppy and I was a year old. We spent many a lazy summer afternoon lolling around the backyard, lying in the clover that grew close to the house, and generally enjoying being with each other.
He died one spring afternoon while I was at Little League practice. My father buried him under the big tree that grew beside the creek that was across the street from our house. My mother told me that Ruff had died when I came in from baseball practice. I walked down to his grave to tell him goodbye. My father, who was tending his garden that grew beside the tree under which he had dug the grave, put his arm around my shoulders and said, “He was good dog.” And I cried.
My first experience with the death of a friend came when I was 13. Ben Henry, a 16-year-old who was, along with his very large family, a member of our church, was killed in an automobile accident that also seriously injured two of my other friends.
Ben had responded positively to a call to Christian ministry. I think that was the first time that it ever occurred to me that dedicating your life to God and promising to serve him didn’t guarantee you a long life. I remember that right after I announced to my church that God had called me to preach, I went into a depression. Maybe I thought that death or something else bad was inevitably heading my way.
From the grave Ben still speaks, in a manner of speaking. I’m still inspired by him. And on his tombstone are inscribed some words that Ben had written: “You can be saved from Satan’s grasp; all you have to do is sincerely ask.” I was a pallbearer at Ben’s funeral. The casket was heavy.
My initial experience with a close family member’s death was that of my mother in 1975. She was 53 and I was 16. She had lost a seven-year struggle with breast cancer.
Her absence was a shock to my system but the greatest shock was to my family system. I was amazed at how her death impacted so many of my other family relationships. She was a part of my relationship with everyone else in my family. With her gone, the dynamics of all of those relationships changed, some for the better and some for the worse. I’m happy to say that most of those that suffered pretty much recovered and even improved.
Just a few days after Mama died, her father died, too. That was when it dawned on me that everybody was going to die. Mama’s death struck me as a tragedy; Papa’s death made me aware of death as an inevitability.
When my father died suddenly of a heart attack in 1979, my sense that everybody I knew was doomed became pervasive. I wanted and needed people in my life. At the same time I was afraid of having people get too close to me because I knew what would sooner or later happen to them.
Over the years I’ve officiated at hundreds of funerals. I’m told I’m good at that. Empathy matters, I guess.
We’ve had a rash of deaths in our family over the past two years. In that time, Debra has lost a brother, I’ve lost three aunts and my stepmother, we’ve lost my mentor and our for-all-intents-and-purposes father Dr. Howard Giddens, and we’ve even lost a cat and Sara’s Beta fish.
The cold hard fact is that nothing is permanent. The recently departed George Carlin said something like, “If God is all-powerful, then why does everything he makes die?”
Everything dies, I think, because physical permanence does not merit the high value that we tend to place on it. There is a higher good than this life. Paradoxically, touching that higher good involves letting go of this life and of those who are in it with us. Also paradoxically, it is in such letting go that we are freed to live most fully. As Jesus said, “Those who lose their life will find it.”
You just can’t live as I tried to live for a long time and still live well. You can’t resign yourself to the fact that everybody is going to die and at the same time try desperately to hold them close to you so that they won’t go away. No, you have to move toward accepting the facts of death and of the impermanence of all that is and thereby let go of everybody, which in turn frees you to know and love them as well as you can for as long as you can.
As Luther put it in his great hymn, “Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also.” It is in letting go of life that we find it.
And as the rock group .38 Special put in their great song, “Hold on loosely, but don’t let go.” When we let go of life, we are enabled to hold on loosely to those we love, not letting go while they are with us but accepting the fact that they are not ours to hold on to forever. They, like we, belong to God. The lives of those I love belong finally to him and not to me.
Death has taught me a lot. Some of the lessons I learned were false and some were true. The hardest true lesson I’ve learned is that letting the people I love go is necessary long before they die. For it is in letting them go that I truly gain them.
Michael Ruffin is pastor at The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga. He blogs at On The Jericho Road.