Death at our doorstep

The end of life is a part of life. Let’s learn to face it.

The Elkhart River. — Anna Ruth Hershberger The Elkhart River. — Anna Ruth Hershberger

We had death at our door a few months ago. A bird hit our window so hard she fell to her death and lay on the pavement. I noticed her when we stepped outside to dump compost. Our daughter was with me. 

Because I believe facing death helps us live well, I drew her attention to the lifeless creature. “It will never fly or sing again,” I said. Too young to understand, she looked for a bit, but soon was off in a different direction.

I think about death a lot. Maybe it’s my personality. Maybe it’s that my mom worked with hospice, or that growing up I noticed my parents were older than all the other parents. 

It took a while for me to learn that other people don’t think about death as much. When a young co-worker experienced a death in her family, five of us attended the funeral. As we waited in line to pass the open casket, the young woman pressed in toward me. As the group moved forward, again and again she stood close. 

“Have you ever been to a funeral before?” I asked. She hadn’t. This was the first time she had seen a dead person.

I grew up in a church where you get to know the old people, they die, and you go to the funeral. Death is a part of life. 

When I was a transitional pastor, I went to a breakfast hosted by a funeral director who was desperate for pastors to officiate funerals for people without a pastor. I offered my help and had the honor of officiating multiple funerals. 

As people leave organized religion, they don’t have a spiritual guide to walk with them when a loved one dies. The funeral director told me it was hard to find religious leaders to offer their services for people they don’t know. And those who give their time to this task might have a hard time making the service meaningful because they didn’t know the one who died. 

In addition to people without a pastor, the funeral director increasingly saw people dying with no family member stepping up to organize a ritual to recognize the person’s life and death. 

It seems we live in a world scattered with people who haven’t worked through grief. 

I get together semi-regularly with two friends, mothers of little girls. Once we talked about death. One friend had recently lost an older sister — her other half, her heart and soul — to an overdose. The other lost an infant shortly after birth. Excruciating. Last year another friend walked with his mother as she decided to stop fighting her disease and give in to death. Months after that, his father died. Death is all around us.

As a stay-at-home mom, I read books about parenting. They talk about food, discipline, sleep, lack of sleep, potty training, community, the importance of talking and reading to your child, the role of play, the importance of playing outdoors, helicopter parenting, chores, encouragement, confidence, cooperation, emotions, manners, education, technology, how to talk about sex. Not one that I’ve read addresses how to talk to children about death. 

Don’t we want to face this grisly world with chutzpah? If so, let’s address murder like that of George Floyd, pandemics causing mass death, death by guns, deaths of migrants trying to cross borders, deaths due to weather disasters caused by climate change. 

Let’s learn to face death. Let’s talk about it in our families, churches and workplaces. Let’s help others face it, too. Sometimes all it takes is showing up to the funeral or starting a conversation.

My husband and I consider funerals a priority. Recently we attended the funeral of a man we knew only peripherally. Why did we go? We felt he was probably remarkable, a person we should have known better. We learned to know him through his funeral, and we were right. He sounded full of determination, joy and faith. 

I walked away with the sense that he was probably a stubborn ol’ mule, too. Talking with a family member, my suspicion was confirmed. The upside, though, is that the stubbornness helped him live a long life and, bless his heart, he milked his days for all they were worth.

Funerals not only acknowledge the life of the person who is gone. They remind us to live our lives now. They help us get a true perspective. They tighten a community and remind us that death is part of life. 

I am grateful for the older people in my community who taught me about death. I am convinced that talking with our child about death helps prepare her for her death, our death, but ultimately, it teaches her about faith and life.

Anna Ruth Hershberger of Elkhart, Ind., is a stay-at-home mom and interim develop­ment director with Anabaptist Climate Collaborative.

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