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  • Joshua Ziefle

Death(s) Observed

A friend from college died this week.


When I saw the news yesterday afternoon, I'll confess to shock and disbelief. She was so young. One of us. A person still on the early side of middle-age, like all those in our generational cohort hovering around our 40th year. As we all found out, there were messages, posts, and texts. I made a phone call to a former roommate and we chatted briefly.


A few weeks ago my grandmother died. Well advanced in age and in unfortunate decline during the past number of years, it seems clear that it was her time. Yet in her wake she leaves for me a relationship as long as I am old. In this holiday season, her passing has moved my family into a period of mourning.


Just a week after my grandmother's burial, an older German saint I grew up with in my church also died, peacefully in her sleep. A death so quickly following upon my grandmother's added no small amount of empathy for her family, even as it underscored the reality of a generation who is slowly but surely walking off the stage.


For those who know me well, this much death all at once is an unusual occurrence. At least this far into my life. That has been a kind of privilege, and one I believe to be nearing an end. Moving forward I suspect all this will be much more common.


Such a statement is not meant to be morbid, but rather a simple comment on reality. As all of us get older, those we love age too. Older generations end their journey, and our peers along with us move towards that same place as well. There comes a certain age when a person checks the obituaries for people they might know. Such a season is approaching for those my age.


This confluence of death in my life, here at the tail end of this year of global death, brings to mind some of the things I have not paid much attention to--the ways and customs by which we are called to honor the dead and comfort the living. I have not paid much attention to these thus far in my life. I think that ignorance comes to an end now.


As an ordained minister, it is a little peculiar that I did not conduct my first full funeral until last month (my grandmother's). Over the course of my life this has further isolated me from reflections on mortality. Pastors serving local churches, however, do not have such a luxury. They are there with their people and their community, reflecting constantly not only on grief and loss but on life and death as well. Even as they offer comfort they help others cast their minds back to lives lived and days gone by. In the process they themselves do the same. Such is the life of a religious leader.


Yet this kind of experience is not limited simply to ministers. For all those who encounter death--an experience more common with advancing age--a kind of perspective and wisdom is offered. Not only in the direct insights gained from those we have lost, but perhaps as well in the ways in which we the living might now decide to make use of our time. Facing death over time, I think, may provide a paradoxical strength and softness that the young rarely understand but which the old can come to inhabit. These are not lessons that anyone would necessarily wish for, but they come whether we want them or not. Such is our life in this mortal coil.


May we all be open to the lessons of life and death as we move forward. May God grant us grace to grow from what we learn. And may God give peace and comfort to those who mourn, and help us to be agents of the same for each other.

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