Thoughts on Death and Other Life Lessons
Note: This post is extremely long after the jump. I’ve broken it out into sections. It’s a compilation of thoughts after losing a dear friend to late-detected, aggressive liver cancer. She’s the first friend (non-family member) I’ve ever lost to death.
This week has been a rather trying week. On the same day that my husband was admitted to the hospital for a nasty Staph infection, I learned that my friend and talented hairstylist Stephanie was in the process of dying and by the afternoon, had passed away.
I’m very much in shock over learning of her death as it was only last week that she called me and weakly told me that they had just released her from the hospital and that she’d get better soon. Never did I think that would be the last time I would speak to her. I just figured I’d text her again this week to see how she’s doing. Although Steph had beaten breast cancer earlier this year in February, she developed liver cancer that went undetected in the interim—and it rapidly progressed to the point where there was nothing the doctors could do.
Sometimes, death is so sudden and comes without a warning. One part of my brain has accepted the news of her death as a fact. The other part of my brain (or perhaps, my heart, really) keeps saying, “No way. Nope. She’s not dead. This is all just an illusion and she’s at home and she’ll be fine. She’ll bounce back. That’s what she did before and it’s what she’ll do again. In no time, I’ll be sitting in her chair and we’ll be chatting up the latest movies and music.”
I think of all the close people in my life who have passed away: my uncle, my father, my husband’s grandfather, and now my dear friend. In each instance, I either saw or spoke to the person shortly before the person died. In one of those instances, I prepped myself, but I was still young and the news came to me as a shock regardless.
Believe it or not, my favorite verse in dealing with death is John 11:35 in which the Bible says, “Jesus wept.” Two simple words. How can they be so powerful?
I am reminded that even though Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead in a matter of minutes, in his humanity, Jesus felt the pain of death at that moment. The irreversible effects of the Fall may have weighed heavily on Jesus as he reflected that death isn’t the natural order of things. Death isn’t supposed to happen. The god-man knew that death was never what God originally intended for man to experience. Because while death takes the life of loved ones, death on this side of heaven doesn’t have the most impact on the person dying; death has the most impact on the people who are left behind as a result of the person’s passing.
Death is a cruel thing to wrestle with. One minute a person is here in our lives, impacting us, shaping us, affecting us; the next moment, the person is gone, life extinguished from the body, never to speak, embrace, or breathe again.
Think of major catastrophic events that have occurred throughout U.S. history: September 11, the 2011 occurrence of devastating tornadoes in the Midwest (namely Missouri), Pearl Harbor, Oklahoma City, Hurricane Katrina, even the 1989 World Series Earthquake. All of these pretty much came out of the blue with little to no warning. Even with hurricane warnings for Katrina, no one could have foreseen the impact that it would have had on the levees that broke. One minute people were fine. The next, they were not; some were injured, some were homeless, and some had died. While I don’t have any scientific proof, human brains tend to process things gradually. That’s why we like “transitions.” It provides an appropriate smooth shift from one thing to another in which without that shift, the change in events would be jarring.
Death is its own form of personal catastrophe to the people it impacts. Each and every single time. It is not natural and it shouldn’t happen. Jesus knew this. That’s why he cried before he raised Lazarus from the dead. I used to think it was merely an example from Jesus giving humans permission to grieve over a loved one. The older I get, the more I realize “Jesus wept” for real. That hurt was real and deep. Jesus raised Lazarus as an example, but Jesus also knew that this was temporary. Lazarus would die again. And his death would be much more semi-permanent.
I may have a funeral this weekend to go to in which I say goodbye to Steph’s body. Perhaps I’ll be able to say hello to her again at another point.
I don’t handle death very well. I feel as though time should stop and everyone should turn and mourn a person’s passing. A moment of silence for every death that occurs close to our lives. I’ve asked people to pray for this family that has suffered two major losses in three years, but I don’t really know if they’re praying. But I hope they are.
In dealing with the loss of people and other dreams, I realized this weekend that I too often focus on what I lack rather than what I have been blessed with. In dealing with being childless, I often think of myself as “not being a mother” rather than think of myself as a Christ follower, daughter, wife, library assistant, proofreader, editor, writer, blogger, apartment manager, caretaker, etc. I realized that other people look at themselves as also not having [fill in the blank] rather than seeing themselves as this, that, or the other that they are blessed with.
Of course, recognizing that I focus too much on what I lack is not minimizing the importance of what I desire but rather recognizing that the sum of who I am is more than what is subtracted from my life. It is not fair, right, or accurate for me to say “God doesn’t love me because He hasn’t blessed me with children” when He has blessed me with two jobs, several dear friends, a wonderful husband, a fantastic family, a beautiful apartment, and the list goes on. On the other hand, it also is not fair, right, or accurate for someone else to say (for example) “God doesn’t love me because He won’t bless me with a job even though I’ve been diligently looking since I got laid off five years ago” when that person has managed to retain a roof over her head, has been blessed with loving and caring children, food on the table every night, a reliable car, a spiffy smartphone, and the ability to connect to the Internet at home. We too often take the basics (and even the luxuries) for granted.
In thinking of my friend, I think of the many conversations we had with each other. It feels as though her life was simply snuffed out without allowing her the opportunity to realize many of the dreams she had and other things we spoke of. We were supposed to go to a concert together. Watch a concert on MTV together. Get a pedicure together. Have lunch together. Do something other than just that one moment where I picked her up and whisked her off to Long Island to help me make arrangements at the catering hall for my grandmother’s 100th birthday party. But in consideration of NOT focusing on what I lack, I am very grateful to God for the time we shared together in October as she battled breast cancer. I am grateful that I had the chance to let her see the pictures from my grandmother’s party. I am grateful for the stylish Nine West boots she gave to me. I am grateful for the opportunity to hand off music that she otherwise wouldn’t have been able to listen to or couldn’t afford. I am grateful that we shared a love for dogs (namely, Yorkies).
She wanted to be an interior designer she told me when we first began our stylist-client relationship. She kept redecorating her home and making it more beautiful. She wanted to go on another cruise. She wanted so many things that she will never accomplish on earth.
Reflecting on this spurs me to action a bit. If I have the opportunity to realize one major dream, I want that to be the publication of my novel. I don’t want to be on my deathbed or diagnosed with a fatal disease in which I think, If only I had… Whether it be 35 or 85, I want to die thinking, Yeah, I did this and that. I’m ready to go.
Many of us want to leave a legacy. Something behind to make our mark on this world. I’ve always been a bit of a “I want to make an impact in people’s lives” kind of person. I don’t know that I’ll really impact other people’s lives in the way I’d like to, but I do hope to leave something behind in this world that makes someone’s life a little bit better because I was in it.
I feel very privileged to have known Steph. She was one of the few black women in my life who treated my white husband with a great deal of respect and love. In my interracial marriage, if there’s any racism that we’ve experienced as a couple, it has come from mostly black people. And especially the black women that I’ve known. But Steph, who would joke that she could go “ghetto” in an instant and “be ready to fight,” always asked how Jason (“my friend”) was doing whenever he was not around. Perhaps she was making small talk, but it meant a lot to me as I don’t know very many black women who actually care that my husband’s okay. (Yes, I do get the feeling things would be different if he were a black man.)
She had her first child as a teenager. That child passed away from lupus at age 19 three years ago. In memory of the passing of Steph’s daughter, I donate the Lupus Foundation every year. Now, in Steph’s memory, I am determined to complete a Race for the Cure. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Now, I have a reason—to raise money for treatment so that we can BEAT/CONTROL this damn cancer thing. So there are less widowers out there. So there are less motherless children out there. I may not see them but perhaps that’s how I can impact their lives.
My only regret is that we never took a picture together. I haven’t been one for pictures for the past few years, but this time, I really regret it. However, I do have many, many pictures of her talent and artistry on my hair. (My favorite is my headshot at left.) It is so hard to find a good hairstylist. And once you do find one, you never want to switch unless you’re forced to.
I’m taking my time.