Thursday, September 29, 2016

Processing Death through Reading and Writing

Me, my mom, and my two daughters enjoying a multigenerational girls' day out several years ago

Last Thursday morning I got the news that the hospital had put a “Do Not Resuscitate” order on my mom.

Then I composed myself and headed to school for a day of teaching. 

This is a brief tour, on a particularly stressful day, of the populous brain of a Christian bibliophile and literature teacher—the conversations continually taking place there among the thinkers, writers, and people of faith of the last 4,000 years.

That day in my 11th grade AP Language and Composition class, students were discussing the final three chapters of C.S. Lewis’s satire The Screwtape Letters. It is a purported series of letters from a senior tempter with a desk job (Screwtape) to his rookie nephew in the field (London during World War 2) advising Wormwood how to best keep his “patient” from the influence of the Enemy (i.e. God). In the final letter, Screwtape is furious that a bomb has killed the patient at the height of his faith, but some of the students are puzzling over the phrase “you die and die and then you are beyond death.” After a few minutes I intervene, back up a few sentences, and read the entire passage under discussion, intensely aware that this is the exact experience my mother is going through at this very moment:
Did you mark how naturally—as if he’d been born for it—the earth-born vermin entered the new life: How all his doubts became, in the twinkling of an eye, ridiculous? I know what the creature was saying to itself! “Yes. Of course. It always was like this. All horrors have followed the same course, getting worse and worse and forcing you into a kind of bottle-neck till, at the very moment when you thought you must be crushed, behold! you were out of the narrows and all was suddenly well. The extraction hurt more and more and then the tooth was out. The dream became a nightmare and then you woke. You die and die and then you are beyond death. How could I ever have doubted it?” (172-173) 
Over my lunch time in Japan, I call my sister in California where it is 8:00 p.m. The nurse doesn’t think mom will make it through the night. Throughout the afternoon, it is a phrase of the poet Dylan Thomas that echoes through my mind: “Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” I’ve always thought in a theoretical way, and now in a very practical way, that for an atheist, he captured the tension of a Christian view of death in a powerful way. As James Ward sings the Apostle Paul’s thoughts, “Death is ended; it is swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57). And yet, death is still an enemy; it is not the way it is supposed to be. Jesus wept at his friend Lazarus’s funeral. And then he didn’t tell the other mourners Lazarus was happier where he was now; he reversed death and restored Lazarus to his friends and family (John 11:17-44). 

When the phone call came about 4:00 p.m. that Mom had passed, I thought, what a blessing. What a blessing I had her in the world for 51 years. What a blessing those hour-long Skype calls every Sunday morning--about kids, books, teaching, following Jesus.... What a blessing my first grandchild was born three weeks early so that I could see Mom seeing her first great grandchild on a 3-way Skype call a week before she was taken sick. What a blessing she suffered for less than four weeks. And how lonely and strange this world seems without her in it.

And how else do we bibliophiles process those powerfully conflicting emotions other than by listening to those conversations in our heads and writing them out? Thanks for listening.


  1. Kim, this is sweet. You will keep missing your mom, and that's good. Love to you.

  2. I can feel all the rumblings of your thoughts in there, as you wrangle with the literature. Thanks for that Lewis passage - he states things so starkly, without buffers. His description of the bottle-neck also reminds me of childbirth. Birth, and living, and death -- sometimes they all feel the same. Life on this fallen planet is such a succession of dying and dying. So much to be thankful for, when God's child passes into glory. May He comfort you in these intervening years.

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  4. Yes, that's the way we process everything. Praying for you as you grieve and rejoice.

  5. Much love and gratitude for you dear sister. Thanks for sharing.