It was Christmas Eve, 1969. My 21-year-old brother went to the florist to pick up his annual Christmas orchid for my mom. He never returned home; he was killed in a DUI accident. Fifty-one years later I remember it like it was yesterday. It made me a firm believer that death is not something we “get over”. Death, particularly when unexpected, carries agonizing emotions, some for a lifetime.
Death is complex and its related reactions are formidable. Experiencing a traumatic loss at a young age taught me a great deal about dying, more importantly, it impacted my living in a positive way. For the next few blog entries I will explore some of the common emotions, responses and reactions surrounding death. I begin by recounting my first personal experience, from which was born a desire to help people experiencing loss through death.
When my brother died, I had a desperate need to know where he was, he was here one hour and gone the next. Overwhelming shock devoured any rational attempt at answering that searing question, “where is he?” What I remember vividly were the inane, impractical answers well-meaning people gave me. “The good die young.” “People who die on Christmas go right to heaven.” “God must surely love him to make him an angel.” “God needed him in heaven, so you must just accept it as God’s will.” From a moderately strict Irish Catholic family, I had been trained to listen to my elders and not to question them, but my 19-year-old, rebellious adolescent mind promptly rejected each of these responses. Still, all these years later, I wish someone had told me the truth: we do not know why bad things happen to good people.
Inadequate answers merely raise more questions. When someone says, “the good die young,” to someone who has lost a child, sibling, or friend of a young age, it merely raises another question for which there is no definitive answer: “Why my young person?” Surely all the good people don’t die young; in fact, there are many beautiful souls who have lived into their 90’s and beyond. Is it reasonable to conclude that because people live long they are not good? Conversely, we can’t label the young as good because they died prematurely.
As for God making someone an angel, it left me wondering, why my brother? Doesn’t God have enough angels and if not, why doesn’t he just make some more, why take mine? Years later, theological studies taught me that angels and humans are two distinct entities and are not interchangeable. The idea of God needing my brother in heaven simply made God impotent. Imagining the divine source of my existence in need, at one of the worse times in my life, did little to console me. As for thinking dying on Christmas Eve was some kind of lovely gift God had bestowed on our family so that we could rejoice that my brother received instant heaven, well I can’t publicly repeat my reaction to this attempt to reassure me. By far the most offensive to me was the notion that this tragedy was God’s will. Impaired driving causes motor vehicle accidents and death. Not only did I reject God causing it for some cosmic or religious reason, considering this answer assaulted my adolescent stronghold on free will. Ultimately, my emotional meltdown came when a person approached me at the visitation hours and asked me directly if I knew if my brother had accepted Jesus as his personal savior, cautioning that if I thought he may not have, then I must pray every day for God to show him mercy and let him into heaven.
In search of a good answer to my desperate question I explored everything from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to the Bible. Ultimately, my quest resulted in a career change from x-ray technician to minister. This grace-filled journey has taught me that presence is more healing for a grieving person than platitudes and that death is our common mystery.