A Season Of Longing

A Season Of Longing December 11, 2012

Death is a horror.

I don’t know how I forgot that, but I did.  I’ve had moments of remembering, of course; you have to be sleepwalking through this world to refuse any awareness of the horror of death.  What I forgot was the power of some deaths, or rather some loves, to bring on a grief that takes hold and won’t let go.

The ache, the longing, the tightness, the haunting memories. Those damned memories.  (My father had a heart attack last month while I was held him, staring into his eyes as he groaned and gasped and held on to me until he could hold no longer.  A lifetime of memories – of laughter and science experiments and road trips and tickle monster – have all been crowded out by the memory of his eyes and the grip of his hands.)

I also forgot just how ridiculous all arguments are that make death into anything but a horror.  My father had a good  life, lived to see all of his children thriving, provided financially for my mother, and was ready to die.  He was ready to get rid of the body that had betrayed him so long.   And I was relieved that he was spared the suffering that he feared.  And still it was a horror.  To describe it any other way would require a force of will so great that I would fear for my sanity.

Now I know that many of my friends and family disagree with me here.  It’s sad, yes.  But a horror?  I’m just not looking at it right, they say.  These people tend to fall into one of two camps.  The first offer an materialist take on death.  It’s a natural and even sad part of life, but certainly not a horror.  Things live and then they die.  The end.  Our sense that it is not the end or should not be the end is an illusion, an unfortunate evolutionary bi-product.

I once asked Sarah Hrday, the anthropologist and primatologist whose work has influenced the field of evolutionary psychology, what the evolutionary purpose of certain forms of grief might be.  She admitted that many of them seemed to proffer an evolutionary disadvantage.  Might then our grief point to something beyond the material?

The second camp that denies the horror of death sees it as some kind of passage to a better place.  Whether Christian or new-age, adherents to this camp say things like, “We’re sad, but they’re in a better place, looking down on us.”

This camp seems to minimize or outright disallow feelings of rage and sorrow.  If they are Christians, there is no room for grief because this world was nothing but a sorry dress rehearsal for heaven.  If they are of a more new-age persuasion, there is no need for grief because very little has changed.  Uncle Bob is simply on another plane, still able to communicate with us, still enjoying Rocky Road ice cream – still exactly the same minus and pain or troubles he may have borne in this life.

This second approach seems to make a mockery of life.  What kind of system is it where everything after death carries on just as it had before death, only better?  Why, then, would this life matter at all?

Neither of these camps’ understanding of death makes sense of my experience, an experience of rage and yearning.  Something horrible and wrong has happened.  I want to break things and carry on like a mad woman.  Death is not okay.

And not just my daddy’s death.  What is happening to Syrian rebels is a horror.  And to children committing suicide after being bullied.  And to mothers watching their babies succumb to cancer.  And to an eighty year old man losing his beloved wife after fifty wonderful years.  It’s all a horror.  And everything in my experience says that it’s not just sad, but wrong.  Please don’t try to explain that feeling away or I might punch you in the face.

Experience is not everything, of course.  People really and truly hear voices that aren’t there, so I understand that my experience may lead me astray from the truth.  But having worked for years with grieving children and adults, my metaphysics needs to account for the fact that people react to death – not to the idea of death, but to death itself – as though it’s wrong.

It awakens a deep No and a profound longing.

It awakens a deep No and a profound longing; which is why I was never so ready for Advent as I was this year.  I’ll write more about that tomorrow, but for now I’ll say the Christian church’s season of No and longing is balm to my weary soul.

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  • Thank you for putting into words what I have felt since the passing on my mother and father in 2011.
    Christianity is somewhat unique I believe in the fact that it holds up death as the absolute horror that it is — an enemy to be despised — while also maintaining that it indeed is not the End. And there exists an even greater enemy than physical death, a “second death” as it is called.

    As a Christian pastor, it is hard to walk this line. When you lose a loved one, you feel trapped between the very real and very purposeful anger and frustration, and the very real hope and longing for another way, another world. It’s my estimation that Christianity may be the only religion that does justice to this tension.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    • Tara Edelschick

      Mike, So sorry to hear about your parent. Both in the same year – it’s too much.

      I love your description of the fine line between acknowledging the horror of death and living in the hope of Jesus. Just love it. I’m writing a follow-up post about this later today. Thanks for writing, brother.


  • Very well said. It IS a horror. Thank you for honestly sharing.

  • Annette Bannister

    Thank you for your honest post, Tara.

  • M. Grant

    I want to thank you for your reflections, Tara. CS Lewis in “A Grief Observed” spoke of the same rage, and the same disgust / dissatisfaction with the 2 schools of thought you refer to, materialism and new-agey Christianity. In his case, I understood it well. It is profound to realize that he wrote of a universal. A friend here in NOLA lost his Dad a couple months ago and when I see him, I see the hurt he blinks away. Your word, “horror” also reminds me of Conrad’s last words in “Heart of Darkness.” Horror at the injustice, the promise seemingly unfulfilled, the portentous mystery of a life’s – or a continent’s – meaning. Its future collapsed into the past. Wittgenstein, speaking more as a mystic, than as the great logician, meditatively wrote that “Death is not an event in life.” I don’t quite know what he meant but I don’t think it’s either the easy acceptance (which masks a denial) of the end, or the illusion / “dress rehearsal” idea. (Strange how similar these opposite poles are when it comes to death!) Another friend, on his birthday Monday, told us at dinner how he viewed his time in jail as a “dressing room” and a “facade,” to my amazement. He is very much struggling to get his life back together but the joy in that statement, and the confidence that he went through 16 months in prison (for DWB, driving while black) I think hints at the transformation that occurs in heaven. We are taken up through the horror of Jesus’ cross into the arms of the Father of the Universe; we remember the Spirit we manifested on earth, and the people who heard our voice in that dim, dark place, but we are “swallowed up in life,” as Paul says, perhaps as much as the caterpillar, from a cocoon, emerges a beautiful butterfly – except we celebrated the birthday with po’boys! My prayers are with you and my two other friends who recently lost their Dads 🙁

  • Bless you for telling people like it is, Tara. My dad died suddenly when I was almost ten, and ever since I’ve lived with that sense that death is a horror. I tend to avoid violent movies — even when I’m aware that it is fiction, the possibility of death is so completely terrible I often dissolve into a puddle. I love Advent for a similar reason — waiting for Jesus, who hates death. But I must say I feel like sort of a lame Christian because I really dislike Lent. Dwelling on the death of Jesus is painful, especially when you’ve seen death up close. I don’t really need a reminder to think about how awful death is! I’m conscious of it all the time! Still working that part out.

    • Tara Edelschick

      Ann, I am so sorry about your daddy – I had forgotten that. And I’m interested in your experience of Lent. I don’t have the dislike you have, but I have never really connected to it. I wonder if, like you, I’m overwhelmed by the ugliness of the cross. Working it out, indeed.