In God's Hands, Not Ours

When we know that a loved one is going to die, we feel not only grief--we feel an overwhelming loss of control

The young mother took her newborn daughter into her arms and wept quietly. Off in a corner, the doctor was trying to explain to the bewildered father the meaning of "anencephaly": The child was lacking the upper hemispheres of her brain. In a few hours, she would die a natural death. A peaceful one, the doctor assured him, because she had no consciousness and no perception of pain.

The old man had been comatose for more than two weeks. The stress of seemingly endless vigils showed on his wife's face as she silently agonized over the decision she had just made. The head nurse and her husband's physician came into the room and, for a moment, stood close to her. Then the physician approached the bed and removed the respirator.

The young man's father had spent hours venting rage and frustration. Finally, he collapsed onto the floor in near hysteria. In about 15 minutes, the State would end his son's life with a lethal injection.

The common thread that links these cases is not only the overwhelming grief suffered by the spouse or parent but also the experience of feeling out of control. They perceive themselves, as much as their dying loved-ones, as victims. Whatever the cause of death, those who are left behind experience the loss of a part of themselves. Their agonized question--Why?--is not some philosophical inquiry as to the meaning of a life cut short. Rather, it's a cry from the heart that expresses hurt, sadness, and frustration over our total impotence in the face of "the last enemy."

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Genesis lays responsibility for human mortality on Adam's rejection of God's commandment. The Wisdom of Solomon tells us death came into the world because of the devil's jealousy. The Apostle Paul and later Christian tradition looked at the question from a double perspective. On the one hand, death is "the wages of sin," the inevitable consequence of human rebellion against divine righteousness. Yet on the other, death is seen as a welcome gift, insofar as it sets a limit to the time of our alienation from God.

This means that death is both a blessing and a curse: a curse because of the devastating rupture it causes in our relationships with loved ones, but also a blessing because God is in total and complete "control," and therefore can bring ultimate good out of death.

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