"It's a hell of a thing to have a doctor tell you, 'your wife is deceased." A man said this to me recently in my role as hospital chaplain. I was with him as the doctor said it and held his hand as he heard it. And as hard as it is to hear, I know it is also hard to say. Often at deaths, for reasons a little obscure to me, I reflect on the medieval paintings of the danse macabre, especially one by Bernt Notke.
There is a sense in the painting of an intimate familiarity with death that seems alien and strange to our modern culture. I think that part of our growing reluctance to face death as a culture is our growing reluctance to embrace the faith of the risen Jesus. I think this true even amongst those who profess faith, because often their language is about their loved one "being in heaven," "being in a better place," "looking down at us." Even in our shrunken faith we are unwilling to face the lifelessness of death. The biblical tradition seems to me to suggest theat when we die, we're dead, winked out and that it is on the 'Last Day,' that the dead will once again rise to life.
Frankly, it's not an especially comforting doctrine in a time of grief. At death, we don't want to acknowledge or accept the actual loss. We want to think that, in some way, the dead are still participating in our lives, still accessible to us in some way. I know that when my loved ones have died, that's how I felt. Increasingly though, I am coming to peace with a death that awaits the final day and an acceptance, at least intellectually, that I won't be looking down from heaven, beatifically, on those I will leave behind. But I also think that that man was right, it's a hell of a thing to hear.