Today is the first anniversary of my sister-in-law’s death.
I almost wrote of her ‘passing.’ It’s an easier word, and more pleasing to the ear. The extra syllable allows the sentence to linger a moment longer in the air, its final note fading away like a bell. ‘Death’ is more abrupt: it slams the sentence closed, with no hesitation or elaboration. There is nothing elegant about it: it has a coarseness to match the indignity it describes. It is the right word, but not the one I’d prefer.
“The lost life of those who die becomes the death of those still living.” So writes Augustine in Book IV of his Confessions, in which he reflects upon his grief at losing a friend. The thought comes at the culmination of a variety of themes—of reflections on the world’s transience, and our proclivity to forget it; on the way grief is dulled by new friendships; on the interdependence of lives; on the way love emerges up and through our bodily life, and is received and renewed by the other. We love recklessly: we go on attaching ourselves to each other, forgetting that we are but dust. In friendship, we love the reciprocity that arises: our conscience is afflicted if we do not love those who love us, if signs of affection do not arise within our bodies to match theirs, indicating a mutual pleasure in the communion we share.
Death removes this reciprocity of affection, which is essential both for friendship and for life. The other goes behind the veil: they are hidden from us, absent, no longer there. All the sweetness of mutual love is removed: where there had been an echo and response to our care, there is now only silence. And so also in reverse: there is no one there to evoke us, to draw us out of ourselves. The love that had welled up within their bodily life no longer finds its partner in ours. The removal of their love is the removal of our life: their silence becomes our tears, their absence our suffering.
And yet: except the grain of wheat fall to the ground, and die, it remains alone. In dying, the seed slowly permeates the world, transforming itself into the fruit of new life. Similarly, those who die go to the Father—and in so going they leave behind a gap into which the Spirit steps, comforting us and bringing us into new life. The lost life of the dying are our death—and within the economy of God’s redemption, our life as well. The blood of the martyrs is the seed the church: the death of His saints is precious in God’s sight, and, somehow, becomes slowly precious in ours as well (Ps. 116:15). Surrounded by the witnesses of the dead and the dying, how can we fail to run the race before us with endurance? (Heb. 12:1-2) We remember the dead that we may imitate them, and in so doing fold their lives into our own—living, in a sense, from them, and for them, and to them. We hasten toward our Savior as we await His coming in glory—and with Him, the renewal of the bonds of all those who are kept by His hand. In bearing their death within us through remembrance, we conform ourselves to the manner of their life.
This is a romanticized way of putting it, to be sure, which eclipses the shocking and horrendous form death sometimes takes. Perhaps this way of thinking is no more than opiate, a pleasing way of avoiding the sorrow and trauma that death evokes. Describing death as a seed going into the ground veils its power: it hides the sheer brutality of the broken body from us, replacing it instead with the niceties of grains and wheat. It is plausible that cloaking the reality this way is necessary to avoid being possessed by death’s iron clasp. Not many of us are able to bear death’s reality, distant as we are from its presence. We must forget its power, if we are to go on.
Besides, the trauma of death is perhaps best understood as a prism for the astonishing scope of grace: if even this is permissible within God’s action in the world, His must be a terrible goodness indeed. No opiate can bring life from death: only the truth can do that.
One year on, the life of Tiffany Mealman is sweet for me to remember. Of her death I can only say that I pray her patience in the midst of extraordinary, even indescribable suffering would be for me the source of new courage in life. All I write about death in this world from this point be marked by her witness. And if God is gracious, I shall strive to honour her, those whom she loved, and those who loved her. For it is the task of those who are encompassed by her memory to keep faithful to her witness, allowing the seed of her life to blossom into the fruit of good works that will endure until the end of all days.
A prayer, on the commemoration of Tiffany Mealman’s death, which is partially composed and compiled:
Almighty and eternal God,
from whose love in Christ we cannot be parted,
either by death or by life:
we give you thanks for the witness of your servant Tiffany,
remembering her joy in life, her patience in suffering, her endurance in hope, and her steadfastness in charity.
We give you thanks that you have brought her into your eternal presence,
and we ask, Lord, that as we remember her life we may be strengthened to endure the struggles and challenges of this passing world with gladness and joy,
and that we, profiting by Tiffany’s example, may bear the fruit of her ministry to us.
Surrounded by her witness and the witness of all the saints, empower us, oh Lord, to run the race you have set out before us to run, fixing our eyes upon the Jesus who your blessed child Tiffany now beholds face to face,
until, through your mercy, we may with her attain to your eternal joy; through him who is the author and finisher of our faith, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.