Thursday, January 17, 2013

What I Learned From Death

Some of us are touched early by death, others have to wait.

When I was about eight years old I knew a woman named Rosemary Thorne. Tall and white-haired, she loved to create little wreaths out of twigs with dried flowers, and she loved photography, even if she was terrible at it. My clearest memories of her include one afternoon when I read a story aloud to the cozy, cluttered afternoon sunlight of her house. I can only imagine how broken and childish my reading must have been, but she smiled and seemed to enjoy it. A little while later she succumbed to the cancer that had tortured her body for years. My mother watched by her deathbed, and I looked on in frightened wonder.

Beauty in the graveyard by amalakar
Beauty in the graveyard, a photo by amalakar on Flickr.
Ms. Rosemary taught me to never lose an opportunity to bless others. I cried for days after she died, because I had only read one story to her. How many more opportunities were there to help and do good to this darling lady? Now I'd never have the chance again. That was probably a result of an overactive conscience, but it made a huge impression on me. 

Matthew McCully was 19 years old, a talented artist and poet, close friend to many—a kid with a lot of promise. One careless driver on a dark night blotted his life out forever. I was not close to Matthew. To be absolutely honest, I thought he was weird, not my "type" at all. But his death was a shock and horror. My cousin was one of his best friends, and when I saw her grief it brought home to me what a treasure the world had lost. I thanked God that I had reached out to him and been more friendly than usual the last time I saw him. 

Matthew taught me to never ignore people on the fringe. I think most of us probably have some acquaintance who dies, or a distant family member, and we wish that we had gotten to know them better. Matthew was different than me, but that was no reason to avoid a friendship he might have been willing to share. I still have trouble talking to strangers and going deeper with friends, but I am trying. You never know when you are missing out on something amazing.

My closest friend to die so far has been Byron Bristol, a 98 year old man who I'd visited nearly every week for several years. He was like another grandfather to me, so full of stories, insight, and generosity. He had his faults, as we all do, but I saw past those and enjoyed his spirit and heart. Byron died last spring, a peaceful, long-awaited passing.

Byron taught me to value the elderly. While some might think of old men and women as leeches on society, has-beens to be stuffed in nursing homes, I learned the value of their deep wisdom and long memories, not to mention their friendship. God cares for all his people: young, old, able, and disabled. We are precious in his sight and should be precious in each other’s. His wife, Esther, who suffered from dementia when I knew her, passed on before him. She was the picture of Christian love, joy, and faithfulness, and she taught me her lessons as well.

Two weeks ago my great uncle Gerald Garner passed away. Though I didn't know him well, he was the father of my mom's closest cousin. It was painful to hear about his rapid decline in health, multiple surgeries and infections, and months spent in a nursing home with no release in sight. When a sudden stroke took his life, we cried and thanked God for a merciful passing. 

Uncle Gerald taught me what a good life looks like. He didn’t do much that could be called remarkable, but each of the two hundred people who came to his visitation could say, "He was a good man." He worked, married, went to church, and raised a family in the same area. He had a sterling reputation, always willing to lend a helping hand or visit someone in need. I have so many ambitions and dreams for my future—but it's humbling to realize that this quiet man lived one of the best lives you could ask for. He loved God, loved people. What more could you want than that? 

Today my great grandfather lies on what will probably be his deathbed. My grandmother is watching her dad die a slow, though not painful death. Two funerals in the same month—it makes me think about how I approach it myself. Elmer Lee Kyle, bless his soul, is a good man, but well known as an ornery one. What would be my reputation if I died today? Would people think of unfulfilled potential, wasted chances, or a good life lived well? 

Merciful release or heartbreaking separation, death has many lessons to teach us. What have you learned? 


  1. If you died today, there would be many who remembered you with great fondness. Your flaring eyes, impassioned speech, eloquent words. The fact that you never had anything but encouragement to offer, and that when you were forced to illuminate a cruel truth, you were KIND. I do not tell you enough how much your presence and friendship have impacted my life for the better, how I try to emulate you in several ways, and bless the Lord every day for the relationship that we share, both as family and friends. You are a beautiful, inspiring, talented woman. You are a gift to this world.

    1. And you, my dear are an amazing cousin. One of the most encouraging people in my life. If YOU died today, you would be remembered as a genuine, kind, sweet, loving, funny, talented young woman, beloved of many.

      I love you so much!


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