I think it was Benjamin Franklin who said that only two things in this world are certain, death and taxes.
If that is the case, why do we spend so little time preparing for the inevitable?
Especially in America, it seems we have a hard time facing death. It always surprises me when I hear about someone dying, especially someone close to us, or someone we just saw the other day.
In Indonesia, death was in our faces all the time, a part of everyday life. I remember standing in front of my house with a Papuan friend as we watched one of the almost-daily funeral processions making its slow mournful way up our road to the cemetery. “Papuans like to die,” she said ruefully, a sad commentary on the high death rates due to diseases like HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria.
I remember another time in Indonesia when a beloved friend and coworker passed away. We went straight to the hospital and were directed to the morgue. I remember shrinking back at the door, not wishing to be so close to death. But when I saw our friend’s wife, now his widow, a look of shock on her face, I was moved to tears. I went over to her, put my arm around her and wept as my husband joined the other men by the body of our friend, some wailing aloud and falling over the body, overcome by their sorrow.
It felt foreign yet also right, to be so open and demonstrative with our grief. It seemed a healthier way to deal with this unexpected death, rather than stuffing our feelings or acting like it’s never going to happen to us.
Our time in Indonesia taught me that it’s okay to be angry about death, to lament the loss, to cry openly and to cling to those around me for support.
More recently I have learned other lessons about death, about how it can be faced with grace, courage and peace.
Rhoni, a friend from Mission Aviation Fellowship where my husband and I work, received a terminal cancer diagnosis several months ago. A few weeks before she died, a small group of us from MAF visited her. She was set up in a hospital bed in her home, in front of a picture window overlooking the Boise foothills. She was smiling and upbeat. She knew what was coming and spoke of the peace she had. She didn’t believe in YOLO (you only live once). She believed in YOLF (you only live forever), and her faith in God gave her peace about the future.
As we talked, I noticed she had a tattoo on her arm, and we asked her about it. It was a bird, she said, and reminded her of a favorite poem by Emily Dickinson:
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
She told us this poem inspired her to make the most of every opportunity to make an impact, even in small ways. She had the gift of time, she said, of knowing “the number of her days” and she was intentional about connecting with different loved ones.
There are echoes of the poem in this Facebook post she wrote on May 9, of a revelation she had when she knew her days were few: “And I realized that if nothing else came from my life, I wanted people that crossed my path to know that they were loved.”
Right up to the end she was texting with friends, responding to girls in her church youth group and receiving visitors. When we asked how we could pray for her, her concern was for her children and her husband, that they would have peace.
Rhoni died on May 28.
Thank you, Rhoni, for showing us how to face the inevitable with grace and peace, and for reminding us to take every chance to love others well.