Somerset Maugham once wrote, “Death is a very dull, dreary affair, and my advice to you is to have nothing whatsoever to do with it.” If only we could.
Over the past few years, I have thought a lot about death, even though I have tried not to. It began with the death of my sister-in-law and, later, my brother-in-law. Then, last Christmas, I published a sappy little novel called Angels Are Waiting,[i] dealing with death during the COVID pandemic, which has claimed more than a million American lives. After that, I witnessed a person close to me repeatedly attempt death by suicide (fortunately, he was unsuccessful). And then, earlier this month, a close friend died from cancer. And that’s not even considering the constant stories of deaths we hear in the news each day, from Russia bombing civilians in Ukraine to sick people killing school children and others with assault weapons in a country that is supposed to be at peace.
My first experience with death was when my grandpa died. I was only five years old and didn’t understand it. I only remember sitting by my cousin, watching my grandma, and wondering why she kept crying.
When I was twelve, death hit me much harder. My sister died of a heart condition when she was 17. She was Exhibit A of the saying, “Only the good die young.” She was intelligent, talented, loved life, and died too soon. A friend who lived across the street from me died a few years later in a car accident. His death, along with my sister’s, taught me that the saddest deaths are those who die suddenly and whose lives end much sooner than they should.
Fred Rogers, the star of the children’s show, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, was not one to shy away from challenging issues. In this scene from the movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,[ii] Mr. Rogers (played by Tom Hanks) teaches us that death is a part of being human:
Although we try to put death out of our minds, many have at least some fear of it. Will the act of dying be painful? Will my family and friends remember me after I’m gone? Is there life after death, and if so, what will it be like? Both of my parents died the right way. My dad died in his sleep at the age of 97. My mom made it to 100 and died peacefully in the arms of her favorite caregiver. They both had long and mostly happy lives and outlived almost all of their friends. And although those of us left behind miss them still, we knew they were ready to move on. I keep hoping one of them will tell me what life after death might be like, but I continue to wait.
My parents’ deaths taught me that it doesn’t have to be painful. People who have had near-death experiences—flatlined but later resuscitated—generally describe the experience as peaceful. And in some cases, death might be a good thing. In this scene from the film, The Life of David Gale,[iii] a death-row inmate (played by Kevin Spacey) tells a reporter (played by Kate Winslet) that death—including his own—is sometimes a gift:
What happens to us after death is difficult for me to answer. I will be the first to admit that I don’t know. Does God exist, and will we live after death? I hope so, but I do not know. Regardless of our beliefs, though, we should be focused on life before death, and whether we believe in God or life after death should not matter to how we live our lives. So, the Christian and the atheist should want the same thing—to make each day special. For believers, to ensure their status in the next life. For non-believers, because this day might be their last. We should not want to be one of those people Benjamin Franklin spoke of when he said, “Some people die at 25 and aren’t buried until 75.”
So, how do we manage death? More specifically, how do we handle the deaths of loved ones around us? Fred Rogers gives us an excellent example in the clip from A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Here is another example from the movie Lars and Real Girl:[iv]
When dealing with those who have lost a loved one, I suggest the four H’s:
Hug it up – you don’t need to say anything, just a simple gesture of love, like a hug will do. And remember, real men hug.
Hang out – This is what the women in Lars and the Real Girl did. They just hung out. Or, as they explained to Lars: “We came over to sit. That’s what people do when tragedy strikes.” People in mourning or crisis need to be around others, but they don’t always need or want to interact with them.
Hush up – Offering hollow platitudes doesn’t help. For example, a person who suddenly dies, leaving behind a stay-at-home mom with three children, one of them battling cancer and a stroke, does not care to hear that “God must have needed him more on the other side.” Whether statements like that are factual or not (as if we know anyway) are not particularly comforting to the person wondering how God could have taken her husband at a time when she needed him most.
Help out– When you see something that needs doing, step in and do it. Don’t ask if there is anything you can do to help; just do it. So often, a person in crisis or tragedy is paralyzed. They know many things need to be done, but they can’t remember most of them or even how to do them, if they remember them at all. For example, I have seen persons in times of crisis who can’t remember even how to use the phone. So make the calls for them. Arrange for food. Cut the lawn. Do something.
A final thought. When my sister suddenly died at 17, my mother was devastated. For about three weeks, extended family, friends, neighbors, and church members rallied around us. Then their own lives took precedence again, and they essentially disappeared. We were left alone. We don’t blame them, for life does go on. But that was the most challenging part for Mom—the time after the initial shock of the tragedy wore off. So go over and sit with friends in need. Just remember, people need us throughout the entire grieving process., which, in some ways, never ends.
I wish no one had to face death—either their own or that of a loved one. But my wishes are seldom granted, and I know this one will not be. As to our own deaths, let’s remember the words of Mark Twain: “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man [or woman] who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” As a comfort when a loved one dies, let’s remember these words of George Eliot: “Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them.” So, let’s tell their stories and pass them down through the generations, so we never forget.
In the final analysis, I like this philosophy of David Gerrold: “Life is hard. Then you die. Then they throw dirt in your face. Then worms eat you. Be grateful it happens in that order.”
[i] Angels Are Waiting (and all my other books) can be purchased on Amazon.com. Just search “Warren J. Ludlow.”
[ii] A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood:
- Production Companies: Big Beach Films, Tencent Pictures, and TriStar Pictures
- Director: Marielle Heller
- Screenwriters: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, and Tom Junod
- Starring: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, and Chris Cooper
- Release Date: November 22, 2019
[iii] The Life of David Gale:
- Production Companies: Universal Pictures, Intermedia Films, and Dirty Hands Productions
- Director: Alan Parker
- Screenwriter: Charles Randolph
- Starring: Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, and Laura Linney
- Release Date: February 21, 2003
[iv] Lars and Real Girl:
- Production Companies: MGM, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, and Lars Productions
- Director: Craig Gillespie
- Screenwriter: Nancy Oliver
- Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider and Patricia Clarkson
- Release Date: November 2, 2007