Sarah, one of my daughters, died suddenly about two months ago. Amongst other things she suffered from epilepsy and died unexpectedly one night after an epileptic seizure caused heart and respiratory failure. Its an unusual way to die, but it does sometimes happen, it always seems to be without apparent warning, and nobody appears to know why. It came as a terrible shock to her sisters and I, and indeed to all her family and many friends.
Her twin and I travelled down to the city where she died and visited her body in the hospital mortuary, something we both wanted to do. I wept there [we both did] and I talked to Sarah and said a prayer committing her back to the God Who had given her to us. I remember her and her sisters’ births, I was present at each of them, and recall how moved I was by a sense of wonder and awe at the creation of new life. Where did it come from? I knew something of the biology, and my part in it, but that in no way even began to answer the question ‘where has this new life come from?’. Seeing her dead body provoked a matching question: ‘Where has she gone?’ It was her body, it could almost have been her asleep, and yet the life force that is Sarah [call it what you will] was gone, where is she now?
The only answer that seems to do justice to the realities for me, is the one St John wrote about in his Gospel. In the Prologue he talks about Jesus being with God from the beginning, and laying that down in order to be born as a human being, and at the end of the Gospel he talks about Jesus returning to be with God again. I take it that this is the model for each of us. We come from God when we are born, and after we die, we return to God. While we are alive the divine spark lives within us, and our task, like Jesus, is to incarnate that divine spark as best we can in a manner that will be unique to each of us. I have felt increasingly sure over the years that there is truth in this way of understanding things, and Sarah’s death, her funeral, and all that went with it, has confirmed my faith in it.
I have heard many people say that there is no worse experience for a parent than to have one of their children die before they do. I have to say that I don’t feel that. Maybe in the future I will, but right now I don’t. Rather I feel a deep sense of privilege to have been gifted by God with Sarah as my and her mother’s child, to have tried my best to help the divine spark grow in her during her life, and then to let her go and return her with thanksgiving to the God from Whom she came, at her death. I’m also humbled to be aware that she did as much and more to nurture the divine spark in me, than I was able to do for her. Sarah taught me a great deal, and is a wonderful and rich gift to me. She would be astonished to hear that, of course, which is an essential part of the mystery of it all.
I’m left with a number of things to attend to. I need to name for myself where Sarah’s giftedness lies, both in herself and in what she called forth in me, and to do what I can to nurture it so that I can play my part in making it a giftedness for the world.
I need to do what I can to support her sisters and all those others who mourn Sarah’s death, just as they are supporting me.
I need to explore my deepening conviction that the dead, the yet unborn, and we the living, are all intimately inter-connected in ways beyond my understanding. Prayer and love, which I suspect are the same thing but in different guises, are the key to this I intuit.
And behind all of the above, I have to look after myself: allow myself the time and space to grieve; listen to my body, head, heart and soul and attend to their needs; and to let healing come at its own pace.