26 August 2006

We will walk together

A student of mine recently lost her father to liver cancer. He died almost as suddenly as the pathology was discovered, leaving the family shell-shocked. There was hardly any time for coming to grips with the disease, much more with his sudden departure. From what little I hear, he was the most loving and responsible of fathers. I can see the grief and loss is immense, but there must be also a storehouse of rich memories for them to plumb in the coming days.

While I grieve with her, I contemplate afresh what death means to me.

Nouwen says:
Death is a passage to new life. That sounds very beautiful, but few of us desire to make this passage. It might be helpful to realise that our final passage is preceded by many earlier passages. When we are born we make a passage from life in the womb to life in the family. When we go to school we make a passage from life in the family to life in the larger community. When we get married we make a passage from a life with many options to a life committed to one person...

Each of these passages is a death leading to new life. When we live these passages well, we are becoming more prepared for our final passage.


Seen that way, death is a final passage that I can embrace, not deny or fight against. I will not live recklessly as though I will never die. And I refuse to die regretfully, as though I had never lived. Knowing where I am going and that I must go compels me to live meaningfully not despairingly.

The prospect of losing our most loved ones also numbs us. Sometimes it even drives us into a kind of self-protective isolation, pushing away people and walling up our vulnerable hearts. But again, Nouwen warns us:

Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering, because those we most love cause us not only great joy but also great pain. The greatest pain comes from leaving. When the child leaves home, when the husband or wife leaves for a long period of time or for good, when the beloved friend departs to another country or dies ... the pain of the leaving can tear us apart.

Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving, we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair. We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking.


When I embrace my own mortality, I must also affirm the inevitable departure of those I love. Knowing that those I love will not always be with me helps me also love them more meaningfully - aspiring for their greatest good, yet setting them free, not clinging and entrapping others.

As we prayed around the father, and as her friends and family rallied with the bereaved - there was an undeniable sense of solidarity. I was moved by the calm and loving sendoff. But I was also deeply moved by the way her student comrades had come alongside her for strength. Together, we were in essence saying to one other: We will walk this journey together. For a time, until one of us must go. But others will come along. And we will continue to journey. Till one by one with the Father we are gathered. We will walk this journey together.

May the love of God and the fellowship of friends enfold us all as we journey together.

1 comment:

Yan said...

Just want to let you know - your words touch me. Thanks for sharing.