Death, Grief, and Judgment

Sint Agatha Rode cemetery D - Death, Grief, and Judgment
All Saints’ Day, Belgium. Photo by Wouter Hagens.

Part of my faith practice involves the celebration of All Saints Day on November 1. It is a day set aside to remember those people of faith who have died in the past year. This remembrance is a reminder of what the writer to the Hebrews called, “this great cloud of witnesses.” This great cloud of witnesses is all those people of faith who have gone before us, as well as those who will come after us. As I grow older and I know more people who have died, this day of remembrance holds more and more significance.

It is also a significant day in my life because it is the birthday of my son, Timothy. Timothy would be 21 years old this year, but he will not be present to celebrate his special day. Timothy died shortly after he was born because of an extra chromosome. Timothy’s short life has taught me a lot about how people choose to deal with loss and grief, as well as passing judgment.

As a rule, people don’t know how to deal with the death of a child, particularly a newborn or stillborn child. In the case of Timothy, when some people learned that my wife and I knew about his chromosomal disorder and that the expected outcome was bleak, they had difficulty understanding why we would allow the pregnancy to go full term. After Timothy was born, and people learned that he only lived for 90 minutes, the responses ranged from “well you never really knew him” to “you will have other chances” (which, by the way, we never did). As people learned of our choice not to take any heroic actions when Timothy was born, still others judged us for not giving him the “chance” to live and not “trusting God” enough.

As a society, we are one of the few cultures who have a very difficult time with death and grief. As a culture, we ignore the aging, the feeble, and terminally ill because they remind us of our finitude. When someone dies, his or her death is shared in hushed tones, and except for the obligatory “I am sorry for your loss” or “s/he was such a good person,” we avoid talking to those grieving their loss.

Our society expects that those grieving should be back to normal functioning within days or weeks of their loss. Standard human resource policy for most companies in the U.S. allows three to five days for bereavement. Our own diagnostic manual only allows someone to grieve a death for a period of weeks before determining that the grief is excessive and no longer grief, but another disorder needing immediate treatment.

In addition, there are parts of our society for whom death is a punishment for bad behavior. Westboro Baptist Church is the most public example of blaming our nation’s behavior or attitudes for the death of soldiers or murderous tragedies. On an individual basis, family members will often find a cause for someone dying of cancer, or heart failure, or some other disease.

Death knows no boundaries, nor requires any logical rationale, and as existential humanistic thinkers and therapists, we know this to be true. Death happens, and it reminds us of our limitations and our pain. Grief also knows no bounds nor can such a process be prescribed in any exact fashion. Grief is the process of acknowledging the margins of our life, as well as the lack of control we truly hold over that which we experience in our lives. Grief reminds us that we cannot make predictions, and our expectations or goals are limited by events and situations beyond our control or awareness.

Timothy’s death taught me that there is no rhyme or reason for someone dying. His death taught me that there are times that death can be a deliverance from something far more difficult or painful. In Timothy’s case, his death rescued him from a life of being connected to machines, numerous tubes and needles thrust into his body, as well as the anxiety of not knowing that exact moment when his disorder would finally destroy his body.

Timothy’s death taught me that life happens, whether I am prepared or not. My wife and I knew four months prior to his birth that he would probably die quickly if he even were born alive. I learned from Timothy that the definition of “life” is not defined by a heartbeat or finger or toes—it is defined by the love and dignity given that person whether they are four weeks in the womb or 40 years old. Timothy was never a zygote or an embryo—he was Timothy from the very first moment we learned he was forming in his mother’s womb.

Timothy’s death taught me that grief has no limits. Twenty-one years after his birth and death, I still grieve Timothy’s passing. He won’t be here on November 1 to celebrate turning 21. I won’t be able to share a beer with him. He won’t be able to go out and party with his friends. I grieve his absence and I have grieved since he died. I have learned from grieving over Timothy that the pain is not just the loss of a human form, but it is the loss of all that was attached to that person—hopes, dreams, plans, love, care, support, anger, fear, encouragement, success, failure, and so much more.

Timothy’s life and death taught me not to expect life and relationships to be fair or just, and that passing judgment as to the cause of one’s death is a futile exercise. Twenty children in Newtown or 12 young people in Aurora or 2,500-plus soldiers did not die because our nation allows abortion, or because gay marriage is becoming more widely accepted. People die because death is a part of life, and you cannot have one without the other. The aforementioned events are tragic, and in some cases, could have been avoided, but the specific changes in cultural values or societal mores did not cause these or any other deaths.

Timothy’s life and death taught me not to judge a person’s decisions concerning life and death. As a therapist and a person, I have not walked in the shoes of the 19-year-old girl pregnant with her boyfriend’s child. I do not know her history, the nature of her family relationships, or her feelings for her boyfriend. I do not know what value she places on living, of raising a child, or her hopes and dreams for the future. What I can do is hold her hand, remind her that I will be there with her, and support her in whatever choices she makes.

As a therapist or a person, I have not walked the path of the 32-year-old man struggling with stage four cancer. I cannot know the pain and the discomfort he is suffering from the treatments he has received. I can only be present with him in his loneliness. I can only hold hope for him as he determines what steps he must take next, and remind him I will be there no matter the outcome.

Timothy’s life is one of those I will remember on November 1. I will remember him not just because he is my son, but I will remember as a child of faith and as a child who taught me so much in such a short amount of time.

— Steve Fehl

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