Not many of us live long before we see death. Sometimes we see it in the slow struggle. Sometimes it’s a quick moment that lies between a person and their absence. The empty seat. The silenced voice we wish we’d recorded, asked more of, listened to longer.
As a child I didn’t believe in death when it first reared its ugly head. My dad knelt before me in my grandparents’ house to tell me my grandad was gone, and I laughed. Maybe it was denial, or childish confusion, but for whatever reason, I was stunned. I wonder whether there’s something about death that has to be lived to be believed, and I’m reminded of the way J.K. Rowling makes a distinction in her books between those who have seen death and those who have not: true knowledge of death changes us.
Weeks like the last few remind us that beyond all our human differences, death unites us. Throughout history people have responded to the mystery of death with stories and songs, art and religious thought: it’s a shared enemy. Even the most ‘fair’ of deaths, those of old people who have lived lives that are full and satisfying, can feel like theft to those left behind.
Last week the world responded to the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman with shared grief. As social media was flooded by tributes we saw how their deaths inspired feelings of shock, a sense of injustice and essential remembrance. The death of a celebrity, of one loved in a distant — but very true — way, by lots of people, shows the human response to death in general. It takes us by surprise. Something in our gut screams unfairness. We know it can’t be undone. We choose to remember.
Death scares us. Sometimes we respond with promises to more fully live the life we have — whatever that means for us. We long to protect everything death threatens: relationships, ambitions, shared conversations and experiences. Many people react to death with thoughts of heaven. For those of us who believe God has put eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11) and offers life after death through Jesus, high profile deaths give us opportunities to share our hope.
Perhaps weeks like these can push us towards craving real relationships and having the deep conversations we sometimes put off. Or encourage us to talk about death with a level of honesty we sometimes avoid.
Life doesn’t begin when I finish university, or the day I get married, or on my 30th birthday. It’s here and now and only once — at least this way. Life is too short to become consumed with needless worry. Too short to inflict pain by casual cruelty. Too short to hide our hope for eternity.
We know this life is short. And yet, it’s wonderful. Perhaps as Christians, being reminded of death can persuade us to live the ‘YOLO’ lifestyle in a way that is less to do with fulfilling our wants and more to do with making the most of the time we have with the people and purposes put before us by God.
We look at death and long for more, and we remember that death too, will someday pass away.
“In the end, its only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it’ll shine out all the clearer,” Samwise Gamgee, The Two Towers.