A list for life, born from the experience of death
There are two friends of mine, both professors and colleagues at the University of Extremadura, whom I got to know in a special way starting with the death of their only child, when I joined them on a journey and process of mourning, into which they allowed me to enter. One day a while ago they invited me to accompany them to a meeting of the “For Them” association.
After the death of their son, they found in this association a unique place of life and consolation. The members are parents who have seen their children die—some very recently, others months or even years ago. Together, they share their journey, their experiences and their lives. It goes without saying that their personal psychological, economic, cultural, political and religious situations, etc. are very diverse, but all have in common the fact of having lost a beloved son or daughter and of having a broken heart due to that experience: sorrow unites them.
They wanted me to participate in one of their encounters so I could explain, in some way, the Christian perspective on human death and the response of believers to this reality. That encounter made a deep impression on me because I had the chance to compare many of the explanations that I usually offer in class regarding the topic of death and Christian hope, with those people’s reality. It was a great personal experience: I went with my notes to give a lecture and came back having been taught a lesson instead. I went as a teacher but came back as a student!
I had thought for a long time how to present the topic, given the situation and the variety of perspectives the listeners had. I brought some notes with me … but reality set in: in those circumstances I had to root my words in experience and be direct. There were three points I considered fundamental, and I wanted to be especially receptive in that regard: the concept of God they had received and with which they live; their attitude before God (Job and the crisis of God); and Christ crucified and signs of resurrection: what they have discovered and what they are discovering since the deaths of their children.
Following the train of thought of their answers, and based on that experience of love and sorrow, I offer you this list for life born from the experience of death. As signs of the Risen One, those brokenhearted parents shared this precious gift with me in their words.
1. “I have come to understand the fragility of human life.” Despite all the distinctions that we make among ourselves socially, financially, politically, etc., we are all very fragile: in minutes, we can be reduced to nothing, and all those things that seemed important disappear. It is vital that we live with the awareness that we are all fragile and that we all need each other. When we love each other in our fragility, we find a reason to be happy. Don’t flee from fragility; embrace your own fragility and that of others, and join together in order to be strong.
2. “I have become compassionate.” Before, some things pained me: only those that were very relevant to me personally. Now, in the face of suffering, I can’t just walk away; any sorrow or pain calls out to me and I want to be with whoever is suffering. True compassion has developed within me. I want to accompany those who suffer, and bring them comfort, sharing their path and their burden. When I do that, compassion cures me and heals me, and above all, it consoles me. Sorrow exists to bring people together in fraternal love; it is an occasion for love and compassion. Only compassion makes us happy. Without compassion there is no happiness. There we perceive the perfection of God: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
3. “I am a new person, and a better person …” Nowadays I see life differently, and live it differently. If I, with my limited and mortal love, want my child to live, I know that only the God of life, the Eternal God of creative and total love, can respond to this desire of mine for my loved ones: “I will love you eternally.” Only in God is it possible to remain in love beyond one’s death. That is why I want to love, to be a better person: because I understand that only the path of life and of coming together with others conquers death.
4. “I have changed my hierarchy of values.” What seemed fundamental and central to life has been relegated to secondary status. What use is it to own, to store up, to know more, to be successful …? None of this is comparable to love, to simple daily life, to a relationship, to family, to friendly and loving time spent with others. It is essential to distinguish necessity from desire and whim; to distinguish what is authentic, what lasts, from what is passing and what fades away.
5. “We are not educated, nor do we educate ourselves regarding the truth.” We hide from death, and we fool ourselves. The first lesson we should learn from life is that we will die. We can die at any moment, and those we love may leave us. … Only from this perspective could we make the reality of death fit better into our lives. And that would make us see life—each day, each moment—as an encounter with unique and transcendent value. It would teach us to appreciate the greatest treasure we can obtain in our lives: to build ourselves up as people through true love.
6. “You can die of love …” It is possible to love so much that you cannot support not being able to love or to be loved; however, on the contrary, it is bad not to learn how to accept failure, sorrow and difficulty. Life also has its elements of limitation, of being a mere creation, of sorrow and failure. Knowing how to live requires integrating and overcoming these aspects of life. Love gives meaning to suffering:
7. “His weakness made us strong.” Our son prepared us for his death. When we cried out, “Why him?,” he sat up in his hospital bed in Madrid, pointed to all the patients around us in the cancer unit and asked in a compassionate tone of voice, “And why all of them …?” We all must die, and we need to know how to do it. We felt united to him, and the fact that we continue in the association is something that helps us to live as he wanted us to.
8. “I feel closer to God.” The death of my son brought me closer to God and has made me more religious. In him, I find peace and consolation. He too held tightly to Christ when he had to suffer blindness and suffering in his illness, and he felt Now, more than praying to God, I feel united with him, to his crucifixion, to the image of him when he fell… And I feel his company and his encouragement.
9. “A new way of relating to others and appreciating relationships.” Now, a university professor and a construction worker have the same feelings; they can sit at the same table and share the same bread. They can be “companions” because they have drunk from the same cup, and they are united by a sentiment that is unique in its suffering, but also in consolation and in hope. We arrive at happiness through the path of communion and brotherly love: a heart full of names. Tell me how much you relate to others and I’ll tell you how happy you are.
10. All of these principles are lived based on a profound and unanimous desire to meet our loved ones again: desire for the Resurrection. For those who have lost a child, everything will make sense if they meet their children again in the life that never ends and that is eternal happiness. I perceived that, in their desires and their hope, the death of their beloved son or daughter calls out for justice that can only be made reality if there is universal resurrection and a definitive encounter in the love that conquers death forever, which gives meaning to all of history, including its disasters and deaths of any kind. … Just as God the Father resurrected his crucified Son.
After this encounter with people who had their hearts broken by death, and who have rebuilt their lives in hope, we can pray the Creed with greater conviction, saying each Sunday: “I believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Amen.