... for a minister is the one you make when you have learned that a loved one has died. Of those, the hardest deaths are those that happen suddenly, without a chance for good-bye, or closure. Of those, hardest, for me, anyway, are the calls to a parent whose grown child has died.
This happens all too often. Not only is it extraordinarily difficult to find the words to say to a newly bereaved parent, but, as the parent of adult children, it is also difficult to hear their grief, their shock, their horror and pain. For parents never stop worrying that something may happen to their offspring; we just learn to pretend it won't.
Today I called Andy, a long-time church member whose youngest son died suddenly at age 44. A professor in Washington State, he was walking to class when he was felled by an aneurysm that took his life. His kids are only 6, 5, and 1. Andy sounded calm and was making plans to fly west first thing in the morning. But I know from my own experiences as well as from walking through these days with many families that the initial reaction can be surprisingly rational; it takes time for such a reality to penetrate.
It sounds like Mike was a healthy, active, productive man who coached soccer and lived well. He was the same age as my mother who also died suddenly when I was 5. My grandparents were still living when she died, but she was the fourth of their children to die. They both passed within a few years. Like Andy's son Mike, my mother left three very young children, my twin and me, age 5, and my brother who was seven. We didn't handle things very well in those days, and there was a general stoicism and forging ahead that I am sure has been an impediment to my own ability to grieve well for much of my adult life. While early loss crippled me in some ways, it also gave me absolute clarity about how to spend and not squander each day. I don't waste my life.
My sister's son died a few years ago, also suddenly, when he was just 30. His stepbrother had committed suicide ten days earlier, and Jim got ahold of some medication of his father's and took an overdose. This picture is him dancing with my son Casey at a wedding when Jim was seven.
My own son came close to dying several years ago when he had a serious accident. Way too many of his friends and his brother's friends have died of drugs, accidents, and even suicide. They are only in their twenties. Each day we learn of women and men their ages who are dying senselessly in our fruitless wars. I feel as if these young people are fighting another kind of war here at home, not a very noble war, but a war still, against the lure and temptation of money and excitement and addiction. Too often, they lose, and so do their moms and dads and baby sisters and aunts...
Life is so precious! It really can be snatched away instantaneously. Losing loved ones early can make you fatalistic and cynical, or it can make you live with reverence and treasure for every smile, every hug, and every blessed day. I know why my son never hangs up without saying, "I love you."
Here is my prayer: Spirit of the Universe, hidden from us behind mystery, tragedy, and beauty, we will never know your face. We will never understand your designs. We can barely comprehend our own existence and why and how we have been dropped into this strange and wonderful world. But we can breathe today. We can smile today, and we can laugh, and love. Let us ever remember how fragile and precious each moment is. Amen.