Sad News

by Josie Smith.

Why do we think of death as sad news?   Whatever the age and circumstances of the one who has died, it is announced as ‘sad news’.   Sometimes it is the best possible news, releasing someone, however well-loved, from unbearable suffering.  And if the person concerned has reached old age successfully and happily and then has – for example – a heart attack which leads to sudden death at eighty-odd, or ninety-odd or more, why is that ‘sad’?  Is it not the natural conclusion of a life well lived, and should we not be able to accept that graciously?

There are many occasions when death is sad, as when a child dies, or someone dies as a result of an accident or a wilful act of their own or of someone else, and a life full of plans and promise is cut short.   It is sad when mothers die leaving young children, or teenagers are introduced to a drug habit which kills them.   But I hope that when I die (and statistically that can’t be far off) no-one will need to write ‘SAD’.   One of my great-grandmothers lived into her nineties, had outlived all her generation, and said many times that she wanted to die.  Her death was a release for her and for all who cared about her.   Unlike her I don’t want to die – I am hugely enjoying even a restricted life and am full of gratitude for every day I wake up.   But this life is finite, and fragile, and I am not afraid.

Isn’t it time that we as Christians took a lead in accepting death for what it is – the natural and normal ending of a human life which began when we were born and from then on had only one possible conclusion?   If we did this we wouldn’t need to use expressions like ‘passed away’ or worse ‘passed’ (which is what one does with tests or examinations), but could say simply that s/he has died?

My sister and I went last year to a wonderful Service of Thanksgiving for an old friend we had both known since childhood.  It followed cremation attended by close family only.  At the service, in addition to the expected eulogy and hymns and prayers, there was a brass band playing joyful music, happy memories recalled by friends and relatives, a live link to America and Australia for family who now live there, and a PowerPoint presentation of pictures, from early childhood in black and white family-album photographs to recent video.   He had been Lord Mayor of his city, and the final picture was of him in his mayoral robes, turning to the congregation and smiling as he doffed his tricorne hat to us with a theatrical bow.    After which everyone adjourned for food and conversation.    And laughter.   The family had interpreted the man and his wishes in the most fitting way possible.    He was, by the way, a Methodist Local Preacher.

Death, and the customs surrounding it, are fascinating.    Ancient burial sites yield not just objects buried with the deceased, (suggesting perhaps a belief that he might need these again in a life beyond this one) but all sorts of information to the trained eye and to modern technology.   The hot, dry weather of 2018 showed up hundreds of hitherto-unknown sites in this country from early or pre-history, only discernible from the air in crop marks.    There is evidence in our country and around the world for the way people lived, who they were and where they came from, what they ate, what they made, and what they traded.

There is endless fascination in the development of tools and language and science – but also of belief.    Last year I saw the Terracotta Warriors in Liverpool, and was horrified to learn at the exhibition that numbers of concubines were killed to accompany the Emperor through death and for his comfort in the next life.

My sister-in law died convinced that beyond death she would meet all the people she had loved in this life.    My husband died with an open mind, not convinced of anything except that God who had sustained him all his life was not going to stop now.    He said ‘I’m not afraid of death’ – it’s just that getting there is so difficult’.

Both Methodist Local Preachers…

What does our attitude to death say about what we believe?

7 thoughts on “Sad News”

  1. Josie, you open your post by asking ‘Why do we think of death as sad news?’ and then in your second paragraph you go on to tell us why death very often is sad news, not just for those who are grieving but for the person who has died.
    I was sad (that’s an understatement; I was devastated) when my beloved father suffered a massive stroke which left him totally disabled and bed-ridden, with no hope of recovery. He survived in that state for fifteen months, during which time I prayed for him to die and gave thanks to God when he did. I can’t remember shedding a tear at his funeral.
    But years later I needed help to cope with the guilt I felt for not grieving ‘properly’.
    Grief is a complex thing; we can’t tell people how they should and should not feel when they lose a loved one.

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  2. Thank you, Josie

    My husband died aged 36 in 1986 as a result of injuries sustained on the rugby field. We had not yet been married for 14 years, and I was left to bring up our 9 year old daughter, a true ‘daddy’s girl’ by myself.

    Yes, that was ‘sad news’, but I had prayed by his bed (when he was on full life support), ‘No, God, not our healing but yours’. The hospital staff were able to rescue ‘his’ heart, both kidneys and both cornea – and my father spotted that there were now 2 dialysis machines freed up for 2 more people to share in ‘God’s healing’.

    It took several years for me to feel that I had become my own self and branch out in new ways.but, within 11 years I had become a Local Preacher and was in the candidating process for presbyterial ministry.

    I sometimes marvel at the way ‘God writes straight with crooked lines’, as Sheila Cassidy has written. The final twist here is that, after my first probationary year, I was diagnosed with MS. I was only able to serve for my first 5 year appointment before I had to sit down. And now I live in an MHA retirement village, very restricted as to mobility, but finding so many reasons to give thanks to God.

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  3. My wife retired from school in a July and began her progress to death from pancreatic cancer just a couple of weeks later. She died in my arms, completely reconciled to her death, confident in God and telling me how much she loved me [as I too told her] moments before her death. I felt shattered, but could not and cannot be sad for her, only myself and my family, and my one hope is above all that in some way we will be together in God’s future [how, I leave to him]. At her memorial service we shared pictures from her life, jokes and stories about her as a vibrant person who was loved enough for her old school to be shut for the day so people could attend. Yes, death can be sad, but not for the person who died ‘in God.’ I don’t talk about her ‘passing over’ or any such stuff, she died. And I can look forward to the time when I, too, will meet that barrier and go through it, with my one hope being in God. Whatever happens after that I leave to him, and all will be well, all will be very well.

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  4. My own experience is that I was widowed at the age of 29. I was left with two small children to bring up. 6 and 10 months. My husband of 7 years had a massive heart attack. I asked the paramedics not to try to recussitate him as I knew he would be left very disabled. They tried but failed….it was quite simply the most devastating time of my life. All these years on, I still grieve his loss but it recognise this has impacted who we are, what we do and what we have become. From my own perspective, I have learnt over time, the joy of living fully each day; I take on board fully, the assurance of God’s promise- it enables me to live with greater freedom; and I know that sometimes for some people we interact with, tomorrow on this earth never comes, so I try very hard to prioritize opportunities to be alongside others. Journeying with people who are in their last days , has brought home to me , that at the end, we are birthed into a new creation. Like labour, this can be a long wait around the bedside and it too often concludes with mourning the loss instead of celebrating this homecoming.
    Living in a Western secular society , too often we collude with the view that death is a “failure.”
    Death is part of life. At a friend’s priesting, I was struck that part of priesthood in the Anglican communion, was to “prepare people for their death.” I was deeply moved by this and felt sad that no where are we explicitly charged in Methodism with this great privilege. Maybe it is time we rethought this and follow in John Wesley’s footsteps when asked what christian teaching was for? His reply…..”To make all who receive it enjoy God and themselves, to make them like God, lovers of all, contented in their lives, and crying out at their death, in calm assurance, “O grave where is thy victory!

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  5. Grief and love are so intertwined that it is difficult to have one without the other being present. But I agree that what lies before us as Christians is more beautiful than that which lies around us now. Just yesterday, I remembered the words on the front of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (D. Adams): “Don’t Panic”. This I believe is Jesus’ message to us – it’s not about the obliteration of grief, or the ease of the transition, but “Trust me, I have it in hand”.

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