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."
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.
What does this mean for the grieving mother of an anencephalic child, or the wife obliged to make a decision that will end what remains of her husband's life, or the tormented father whose son is to be executed? What of those and multitudes of other deaths that seem so totally out of our control to prevent, delay, or even understand?
A partial answer, at least, is provided by the Church's monastic tradition. Typically, the monk (man or woman) rises in the morning, makes the sign of the cross, and says quietly, "Remember that you are going to die."
There's nothing at all morbid about this way of starting the day. On the contrary, this is the ultimate gesture of surrender: not to fate or the dreaded inevitable, but into the loving hands of God. The monk lives to die, to make the final pilgrimage that leads to Pascha, the "Passover" from temporal death to eternal life.
How do we acquire some modicum of control in the face of impending death? As with the monk, the answer lies in the notion of "surrender." Surrender of ourselves and of the dying person into the merciful embrace of the Author of Life.
By virtue of our baptism, each of us is a member of a "holy priesthood" (1 Peter 2:5,9). A priest's most fundamental gesture is to "offer": to receive the gifts of the people and offer them to God, and to receive God's gifts and distribute them to the people. This means first of all the Eucharist, but it includes every aspect of our life and being. Thus the petition so familiar in Orthodox litanies, "Let us commend ourselves and each other and all our life to Christ our God!"
Those who cannot prevent the death of a loved one are nevertheless very much "in control." Their responsibility and their privilege is to make the priestly gesture that all of us want made for ourselves. It is to remember--day in and day out--that the purpose of life is to live and die to the glory of God, and, in the words of the old Reformed catechism, "to enjoy him forever."
To "remember" our own death or the death of someone we love, and to do so in the most blessed and hope-filled way, is above all to remember the words of the Apostle Paul as he faced his own death, "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." And to take with utmost seriousness his insistence that what is "far better" in human experience is "to depart and to be with Christ" (Phil 1:21-23).