About a year ago, my friend Mark gave me Our Greatest Gift, by Henri Nouwen. Since I’m stubborn and generally averse to books about dying and grief, it has sat on the shelf ever since. But this week, with an upcoming date to plant a memorial tree for our Will, and my dear friend Mike dealing with the recent loss of his father, I found my way toward it.
It is thin, but potent. In his usual way, Nouwen gets right to the heart of the issue, and delivers distilled wisdom as he discusses not only death, but caring for those who are dying. Of course, this means he’s writing for all of us, twice over. Within the first few pages, he gets right to the point:
People are dying. Not just the few I know, but countless people everywhere, every day, every hour. Dying is the most general human event, something we all have to do. But do we do it well?
The way forward, then, is found by embracing our humanity, and recognizing our unity with other human beings. Instead of isolating ourselves in a fear of death and the unknown, to recognize our essential solidarity with every other human being– past, present, and future.
Toward the end of his work, Nouwen writes of the ‘hiddenness’ of the resurrection: it is promised, and a fundamental part of the Christian view of death. But it is, in its hiddenness, not a ‘happy ending’ or some candy-coated remedy for all of our fears or some simple description of a clear course of events. Instead, resurrection is evidence of the faithfulness of God, and the basic conservation of all that is beloved to God. It doesn’t answer all of our questions about death, only the most basic and most important one. In the end, it leaves us with trust.
Death, then, is a loss and a gift. It is a gift because it ends suffering and allows the life that has ended come to full fruition. But seeing this, and allowing the fruition to come, requires those of us who remain to release our grip, and to trust in the basic goodness of God.