A Letter To Death

May 21, 2020

 

Dear Death,

 

I never wanted to see your face. For many years I was spared the agony of your presence. I guess I got too comfortable, too complacent. 

 

I knew about you and what you were capable of, but I had not yet met you intimately. From what I'd seen, you were always busy disrupting lives and devastating people when they least expected it. I should have been more prepared for your arrival. I should have known you'd come when everything was going well. You must get some perverse pleasure out of seeing people suffer.

 

You blindsided me. You took my friend's son too soon. I was with my dear friend when he got the call at one o'clock in the morning that his son had been hit by a train. You bastard. I didn't have time to feel. I went right into crisis mode, like I had learned to do the last 15 years working in high trauma ministry. I stood by helplessly as my friend's world fell apart before my eyes. I witnessed his anguish, his cries, his confusion, and denial as we waited for more details to come in. I offered some words of comfort, but mostly I listened and offered my presence, the only thing I really had to give. 

 

Immediately, all our plans changed. Everything we had lined up that day - orientation for incoming volunteers and speaking sessions - became irrelevant. In that moment nothing else mattered. I needed to accompany my friend back to his home state and hope my colleagues could cover for me. From that day on, my friend, his family, and community would never be the same. I would never be the same. 

 

You see, you have a way of turning people's lives upside down. And you weren't done with me. Less than a year later you would visit me again and again and again and again. Next my grandma, then my grandpa. I received an email that he took a turn for the worse and if I wanted to see him before he died, I would need to go immediately. Again, my plans changed. I was in the middle of leading an intensive urban week with a college group and didn't want to leave them hanging, but also didn't want to miss my moment to say goodbye to my grandfather who had done so much for me, including helping me pay my way through college. I got the group started and handed them off to a colleague who filled in so I could once again face your aftermath. My sister gave me grim updates about my grandfather's health as my wife and I experienced delayed flights, rental car snafus, and unexpected toll booths. 

 

We finally arrived just in time to say our last goodbyes and grasp his hand as he breathed his last breath. I have never been with someone at the moment you take them. It was a sad and surreal moment to see the flesh color in his face change to a ghostly white. We shed tears and we also celebrated that he had lived a full life and was surrounded by family in his last moments. 

 

But you weren't done. You came three more times for my family within a few months. A step cousin. My great Uncle. And then my cousin's seventeen year old daughter in a tragic car accident. I hated you for that one. She was a sweet, compassionate and struggling young girl who had all the promise in the world, and was just starting to turn the corner. During orientation at community college, she went for a quick food run with some new friends, and within minutes the car flipped and sent her through the windshield. She was the only one without a seat belt on and the only one who died. The driver called his dad's lawyer before checking to see if she was still alive and in need of any care. 

 

I traveled once again to Florida to be with family as we grieved and tried to make sense of what had happened. Her parents, devout Christians, shared stories of hope and offered comfort to others who were upset and overwhelmed by this tragic loss. For the next year, my cousin would process her feelings of loss daily on Facebook. Her soul was in obvious torment trying to hold her grief along with her faith in God. These kinds of wounds don't heal, they just get more tolerable.

 

At the time, I didn't realize what the cumulative impact of your presence was doing inside me until it was too late. You wrecked my life just like you have done to so many people I know and love. I couldn't handle the grief. Because I wasn't familiar with the pain you inflict I had never learned to grieve or be ok with sadness. 

 

Before you showed up, I was able to hold it all together, able to suppress my emotions, and perform in my roles at a high level. Being detached from emotions is actually rewarded in the professional world, even in the Christian nonprofit world. But after you came along, everything inside came unraveled. All the pain of childhood trauma I had run from, all the anger I bottled up, all the fear of failure I covered up with achievements, and the sadness from all the sudden losses came flooding in. It was too much for me and I broke. 

 

I fell apart. I became vulnerable to deception and manipulation, from myself and others. I went down a dark path that led me deeper into failure and loss. Everything I had invested my life in over the last 15 years crumbled before my eyes. In my despair and confusion, I hurt people who trusted in me and trusted people who didn't really know me or have my best interest. 

 

I was lost. At my lowest point I could not see any way out or any way I could recover. I even thought of giving you my life. But you can't have me yet. It's not my time. There's still more I need to do.

 

You need to know I am not afraid of you. I was never afraid of dying. Since I was young I envisioned myself dying for some worthy cause. But this only obscured my deepest fears: facing my pain and failure. You forced me to deal with all of these painful emotions. You took people away that I love. You caused me to unravel and break.

 

I want to blame you for all of this, but I own my part. I take responsibility for my emotions and my choices. You don't control me. I don't like you but I accept you. You are an unfortunate and inevitable part of life.  

 

I didn't want to be near you because it meant being close to my sadness. But I have made peace with my sadness and fear and anger. They aren't parts of me to ignore or hide. They are here to help me heal from all the unexpected things that come in this unpredictable life. They are here to remind me I am human and I can recover from anything this life can throw at me. 

 

In a strange way, I am kind of grateful for you. You helped me see what's important: not schedules or successes, but people and moments. You taught me that feeling is the way to healing. And you remind me, constantly, that I have but one life, and it is precious. 

 

I don't know how much time I have before you come for me, but I will be ready. Until then, I will live like every day is my last and feel with every emotion I have so that I can love each person I encounter with all I have. 

 

Sincerely yours,

 

Shawn

 

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