On numbness and death

Death has been a part of my life as long as I've been alive.

I don't have a memory of a time in my life that wasn't somehow connected to someone dying. My 19-year-old uncle died when I was five. I remember his funeral. I remember him. I remember missing him and being sad. I have been to the funerals of grandparents, great-grandparents, cousins, friends, aunts, and uncles. I have been to the funerals of toddlers and the elderly. Death is not something with which I am unfamiliar.

Yesterday, as I sat at my aunt's funeral, I realized death has become a routine for me. I know what to do when someone dies. I am all too familiar with getting ready for a funeral, riding in a black limousine, filing into those first few rows. I have kneeled for the rosary and nodded to a chorus of amens. Something I have not done in a good, long while, though, is cry at a funeral.

My eyes stayed dry yesterday, but I watched as my mom's tears fell freely. I watched her wipe her wet cheeks with tissue...  so small in her black dress; so fragile as she said good-bye to yet another sibling. I was sad for my mom... and I felt that death has become too familiar for me, ostensibly so. I am no longer shocked by its injustice, the way it seems to rob mothers of their sweet toddlers and teenagers. How it remains ambivalent as middle-aged women sit in a cold office, surprised by a terminal diagnosis. I have somehow managed to remove the humanity from death. It is matter-of-fact. Every living thing dies. While my biology professors would likely affirm my de facto statement, my mom needed me to put flesh on it, to be a sympathetic and present daughter.

I want to mourn with those who mourn... I want to be compassionate, tender. But rather, I effortlessly drift into a robotic mode of meeting needs ("I'm bringing a lasagna") and planning ("what music will be played at the service?") when sometimes maybe, just maybe, I need to sit and be. Allow sadness as my companion. Maybe, just maybe, I can unlearn all of my experience with death. Maybe, just maybe, I can be an actual person with feelings... less concrete, more abstract. Death is inevitable, yes. We will all experience others dying and death ourselves... it is inevitable and certain. Yet, so is suffering... and it is the humanity of us sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. The Lord was kind to instill in us feelings... He calls us to have brotherly love and empathy (1 Peter 3).

I think for so long I didn't want to be the emotional basket case that fell apart that I've swung so far the other direction. This death thing? It doesn't affect me... I am strong. You can depend on me, the fixer. Unless that's for emotional support... in that case, I've somehow forgotten.

I am hopeful that I can soften... hopeful that I can become a real-life human for those suffering a loss. Not just the provider of pot roast, stamps for thank you cards or tissue. But also someone who will cry with you... Can we really learn empathy again? Can the Lord redeem my hard heart? I don't want to don another black dress and stand at another graveside silently counting down the seconds until I can leave and get on to the next thing. I want the switch to be flipped. I don't want to be numb... I want to fully experience emotions and brokenness and the heartache of loss. It is true that numbness is easier, for sure. But brokenness and heartache is where Jesus meets us... where relationships are strengthened and community solidified.

Spurgeon said, "I am certain that I never did grow in grace one half so much anywhere as I have upon the bed of pain." I cannot afford to walk forward in numbness. The lessons of grace waiting for me in suffering with others are not worth avoiding. I need this grace, this experience, this love.


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