“You can’t have living without dying. So you can’t call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road.”― Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt
What would our world be like without death?
This was the central question that inspired my novel, The Perfect Outcast. It led me to characters and circumstances and conflicts I did not expect. When submerged in the dark sea of grief, it’s tempting to wish for a world without it.
I’ve heard many analogies about grief. Each is powerful in its own way, but the one I relate to most is “the cup that refills.” When someone you love dies, your heart feels like a cup placed under a waterfall where a flood of pain rapidly spills over. The flow is so torrential, you may feel as if you’re drowning. Over time, the flow subsides and takes longer to fill your cup. But it always reaches the top eventually and at some point, often unexpectedly, the tears and emotions pour over. Whether or not the cup fully drains, it immediately starts to fill again. Even if it slows to a drip at a time, someday it will overflow—because grief never completely goes away. Although that’s a sad thought, it’s also a comforting one. It means the love and memories you have for that person will never go away either.
Last week my cup spilled over which it hadn’t done for some time, and hit me so hard it stole the breath from my lungs. The trigger came when a sweet woman from my church suffered a stroke. Naturally, many people were deeply concerned about her and her family. For many days, her condition was critical and uncertain. As I prayed fervently for her recovery, my thoughts took me back nine years to this exact month and time of year. A memory so painful, I don’t revisit it often. I mourned for this family because I understood what they might be feeling. That aching feeling of dread, intermixed with periods of peace and hope. Will she recover? If she does, will she be the same? What kind of therapy and special care will she need? Is it better to take her off life support and let her go? What is God’s will? If I have enough faith, will He provide a miracle?
Another blow came only a few days later when the father of my dear friend passed away quickly and without warning. In this case, there wasn’t time to ask those heart-wrenching questions—whether or not he would pull through or if God would provide a miracle. It felt so irrevocable, non-negotiable, and devastating.
I believe in miracles. I believe in a God who loves us and hears our prayers. I also believe He knows what is best for us. I know, firsthand, the peace He provides during times of indescribable pain. But that peace doesn’t lessen the reality of grief. The loss of a parent is a critical event in our lives. It cuts to our soul, to our very identity. Mothers and fathers are the first people we come to love and trust in the world. We first smile, laugh, and discover the world with them. They provide comforting boundaries and security from the things we fear. Even if our relationship with one (or both) is less than ideal, we still care about them and defend them. We’re bound to our parents because they gave us life. And when they’re taken from us, it can feel like a part of us goes with them.
Sometimes, the loss of a parent is expected. They develop wrinkles and body aches or more serious conditions like adult onset diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. As their health declines, we prepare ourselves little by little. Sometimes they die sooner than expected, and we feel robbed as others thrive into their eighties or even nineties. But unless we lose a parent at a tender age before we leave home, most of us are accustomed—more or less—to living independently of them.
I believe grief cuts deepest for the children who lose a parent early in life, for the parent who buries a child, and the widow/widower who loses a beloved spouse—no matter the season of life. The more constant a person’s presence is in our daily lives, the more profound the void when they’re taken from us—because we’re used to having them with us always. We’re accustomed to seeing their faces, hearing their voices and laughter, and doing monotonous but blessed tasks like picking up their dirty socks, making their favorite meals and reading stories together. We all know people who have faced this kind of loss, whom we revere because they’ve endured where our minds won’t let us go. We marvel as they survive a day at a time, painfully placing one foot in front of the other—not because they feel strong but because they have no other choice. These deaths rattle us because they remind us how fragile life is—how quickly lives can be changed forever, how little control we have over the people we love. We know, deep down, this nightmare could happen to us—and may likely one day happen to us.
I love this soothing quote from the book Tuck Everlasting: “Do not fear death, but rather the unlived life.”
Loving others is what brings a full, “lived” life. There’s a connection between this love and death. In my immortal world of Pria, there are no illnesses or accidents that lead to death. Because of this, people are not inclined to reach out and help one another because no one is in need—at least not physically. This perpetuates their vain and self-centered culture where love waxes cold.
We treasure our loved ones when they are absent from us, when they face illness, hardship, or injury. We serve them in their times of trial, which makes our love grow. If we never had to worry about losing our family and friends, would we love and appreciate them as much?
After the death of her grandfather, I witnessed a young girl embrace her grandmother and comfort her as she grieved. They leaned against one another, and a visible change come over this woman as she relaxed and her tears eased and breath steadied. When we lose someone close to us, others we love, particularly family, can provide the healing balm we need to endure and move forward. Our life would be nothing—truly unlived and unlivable—without these precious connections. The loss of a loved one can be a sacred time when hearts soften and relationships are strengthened. It prompts us to look outside of ourselves, serve and lift each other, and expand our hearts to care more deeply—even as the waterfall is roaring down upon us. We experience the vast depths of grief so we can understand the bottomless extent to which we can love.
So as difficult as death is, it makes our world livable. We grieve because we have loved. We reach out to others in their pain, which reminds us of what truly matters: our relationships with each other. These acts of service build more love. The cycle continues, occasionally bringing the worst pain we can experience. But also the most joy.
And that is what we live—and die—for.