When my father died—God help me for confessing this—I felt relief.
For over a week in December my family and I didn’t know whether my father was recovering or dying. He had been admitted to the hospital for one set of circumstances but suffered a massive stroke as he began to improve. The days that unfolded soon thereafter were a painstaking journey filled with conflicting information from the doctors, uneven reports from my family, and my own sense of how things were progressing.
The only word that seems to capture how those days felt is torture.
Dad didn’t seem to be at peace while we waited for him to recover, or to die. He seemed, to me, to be fitfully sleeping. The somnambulant state that he was in seemed to be a prison; it looked as though he wanted to wake up and emerge from his slumber but could not. It’s true that his eyes would occasionally open, and that the edges of his mouth would curl up as though he was smiling. He would clearly raise his chin when my mother would lean down to him, and his lips would close to return her kiss. But he would never fully awaken. And he would never utter another word.
The feeling of watching my father die was so loathsome that it makes me gasp to recall it.
And I know that you know what this feels like. For I know that you have watched your loved ones die. I know this because I have been privileged to walk beside you during these most-difficult times. My experience with the loss of a loved one is hardly unique. But that doesn’t mitigate my pain.
As many of you have confessed to me in softened tones over the years, there are worse things than death. And extending my father’s dying would have been one of those ‘worse’ things. So, I know many of you will understand when I report that I was relieved when my father did, in fact, die.
I was not, however, glad. The loss of my father, coupled with the steep, mental decline of my mother, dampens my cheeks and hollows my heart. I grieve for my own personal loss. I grieve for my children and for my spouse. I grieve for my mother who feels confused and alone. No, I do not like death. And dying I detest even more.
I am, however, more passionate today about a notable story from the Bible. It’s one you’ve heard me reference countless times, and I have no doubt that you will hear me revisit it again…and soon. It’s the story of Jesus and his experience with a most-personal loss--that is, the death of a dear friend. I find great solidarity with God in this story because I see Him despising death’s grip on the world. In seeing Christ’s tears on the road in Bethany, I have the assurance that God is not content with death’s power. When Jesus calls Lazarus from the tomb, I see a God who is fed up with death’s eternal darkness. And I love this God. I love His strong voice. I love how He calls His friend out of the grave. I love that He is moved to the point of action. I love that He will not let death win the day.
So when my father died, I was grateful that he would never have to die again. Because in Jesus Christ, the God of resurrection would put an end to death’s finality. No. Easter put an end to death’s reign. God has triumphed over the dark, long shadow of death’s domain.
But that doesn’t change the deep sense of loss I feel today. I ache for the reality that I will not receive an email from my father in response to this reflection, for he would faithfully engage me each Wednesday afternoon once he had read my article. No, God’s activity in Jesus Christ doesn’t take that pain away, though I certainly wish that it did.
However, the hurt that I feel does not stand alone. It is accompanied by a sense of gratitude that dad has been born into life eternal and that his smile is as wide as it ever once was. In truth, on the occasion of my father’s death, I felt the same sense of relief and giddiness in that moment that I did when our children were born.
I wasn’t happy that dad had died, of course. I was happy because the moment was filled with promise and hope.
Just like birth.