Another Long Slow Goodbye

Another Long Slow Goodbye

[Written 17 December 2016] My wife’s mother just died two nights ago. She was diagnosed with vascular dementia quite a while ago, so . . . this was a surprise to none of us. I wasn’t with her that night, but my wife – her eldest daughter – was.

But it has made me think. About her mortality. And about my reaction to her passing. I realize that my thoughts on death, my own reactions to it, have changed over the years.

When my own grandparents died (in the 1970s, except for my maternal grandfather in 1950), I was elsewhere geographically, and remember the events mostly as abstractions. This, despite the fact that I served as a pall-bearer at my maternal grandmother’s burial.

Also, when these deaths occurred I was nominally a believer, so it would all be put right at some future time, right?

By the time I lost a cousin or two to “premature deaths” (whatever that means ontologically), I had pretty much come to unbelief, and for more rational reasons (read less religious or theological) felt a similar-but-different disconnect with regard to their passing.

My own mother and father died within four years of each other, 2002 and 2006, both from cancers. As their diseases progressed they were both suffering badly – or would have been at the end without the support of Hospice – and magic of Morpheus. While I missed them (and still do), my response to their passing was one of near-relief. Almost embarrassingly, almost guilt-riddenly so.

Neither death hit me emotionally. I realize now that I was still thinking of their passing somewhat in the abstract.

Now this death. My mother-in-law has always been the person in my wife’s family who was most-distant, least personal, least easy to get to know well. And she had been in care facilities (some of them very nice, very upscale), at her explicit wishes, for about ten years – ending in a small and well-run residential-care home less than a mile from her old home, where my father-in-law still lives (he with 24/7 personal assistants). In other words, I have had even fewer opportunities to get to know her through this past decade, not more.

So her passing this last week has not hit me emotionally, at least not yet.

But I find that I am reacting to this death in ways I’m not used to. And I’ve wondered why. I think it may very well be that death, given where I am in my life span, is no longer so abstract. Her death, more than the others, has asked me to think about my own demise – just given that it is no longer such a remote possibility.

Yet I find myself suspended between hope and dread, feeling neither acutely.

Might it be that my present place in unfaith, my acceptance of “cosmic realities,” has taken the sting out of death for me? If so, what an ironic reversal of the Apostle’s assertion. At least, I know a lot of Christians for whom death still holds a powerful sting, Paul’s words to the Corinthians to the contrary notwithstanding.

My believing self had always been told that a death without faith in a resurrection is a terrifying thing. Why then am I not terrified?

Does any of this make sense to you?

Larry Mitchel

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  1. Jon Olson:

    Larry’s thoughts make sense, and I enjoyed reading them. I wonder if moving from belief to unbelief carries many of us into a broader sense of connection within social and natural ecologies, which makes it easier to accept “cosmic realities.”