Death – A Forced Engagement

I’m dedicating this post to Ross Elliot, an extremely influential person in our lives who recently passed on.  He and his wife Pauline were missionaries to Uganda and Kenya for many years. I’ll always remember when Tessa came back from Uganda in 2010 amazed that the vocational training school Ross started 30 years earlier was still going strong. This post is some thoughts about death that I wrote a year ago, but wasn’t brave enough to post at the time. I was forced to engage with death in Lacor Hospital as people died in front of me nearly every day.

“Thank you doctor for helping my child, you did everything you could but God has taken him home”

This father’s words will never leave me. I was immediately overwhelmed with sadness, guilt and confusion.

Sadness because his 8 year old son had unexpectedly died in the night.
Guilt because our delay in diagnosing his disease may have contributed to his death.
Guilt because the thanks was at best undeserved, at worst misplaced.
Confusion because death confuses me.

Things were made even worse when the test result arrived only 10 minutes after the child’s death. The diagnosis written in clear, bold letters. Burkitt Lymphoma. A curable cancer which our hospital treats. But it wasn’t caught fast enough. Its unlikely we could have saved him, but perhaps it was possible. If we just moved faster, if we did something different…

“Thank you doctor for helping my child, you did everything you could but God has taken him home”

How should I respond to that? Comments like that are very common here in Lacor hospital. Family members of people that die are surprisingly gracious to us who failed to cure their loved ones, even when their death is unexpected. Thoughts whirled through my head while I managed to keep my mouth shut – not always the easiest thing for me.

Should I say ‘I’m so sorry about your son, you’re being so nice to us when we’ve failed you so badly’
Or  ‘Thank you for being so gracious, I can’t believe you can be so wise and thoughtful when this tragedy is so fresh’
I think I settled for something like “I’m really, really sorry about your son”

Death is always tough to deal with, even when it relieves suffering, or at the end of a long and fulfilled life. A lot of this is due to immense loss. Part of the pain though is that death itself can seem inherently wrong and unfair, especially when it involves a young boy with a curable cancer. His death felt like a tear in the space-time continuum, an unintended aberration. And death itself is such an enormous problem, that God had to deal with it by taking the drastic measure of sending his son to die.

Something that we hear at funerals and read in the bible, something I’ve found easy to believe on a shallow intellectual level, but not deep in my bones, is that death is not just a tragedy, but the next step in our eternal life. This strange juxtaposition of immense sadness, yet eternal hope is a heart wrenching part of human existence that I try (and usually fail) to reconcile here at the hospital.

There’s this amazing line in the bible “to live is Christ, to die is gain”, where Paul contemplates his own death. He tries to explain the almost paradoxical, hard to fathom truth – somehow its OK either way. Whether your living, or you die, you’ll be alive with Jesus. In the bigger picture of eternity, God has made it OK, even when right here right now, with an 8 year old boy dead on the hospital bed, its really not OK. The father of this boy seemed to know that truth in a deep and profound way, something I’ve not yet managed.

“Thank you doctor for helping my child, you did everything you could but God has taken him home”

I would say Rest in Peace to Ross and the boy, but I know things are even better than resting for you guys right now. A lot better.

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4 Responses to Death – A Forced Engagement

  1. Beautifully written post Nick. Sorry, just got around to reading it now.
    I remember when I was 17, staying at a friend’s place out of town for an 18th birthday. We were mostly Christians present, friends from youth camp, and one of the youth leaders, who was 21, led us in Bible study the night before. He shared on that same passage of Paul’s: “to live is Christ, to die is gain”. And I recall him saying ‘he is willing to die now and join Jesus’. That night, as we all slept over at our mate’s house, girls on the floor in one room and boys on the floor in the other; our youth leader died. He died in his sleep. We couldn’t quite understand it then, and don’t understand it now. So much of death I don’t understand either…

  2. Les Brighton says:

    What a man, the father! Don’t you have just the greatest respect for him. But also he lives in a different world to our shallow 21st century first world thinking: he has foundations that are solid
    . Thanks for sharing.

    • ntlaing says:

      Thanks Les, that’s very true. I still can’t get my head around his response to be honest, I don’t know if I ever will! Maybe you’re right, my thinking doesn’t reach deep enough.

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