In the church of England's 1662 prayer book, there is a line that reads, "From sudden death, Good Lord, deliver us."
That line expresses one of the greatest human fears. The fear of dying without warning.
It could be argued that all death comes as a surprise. I've had my share of friends and family who suffered terminal illness or were simply very old, but even then, death seemed unexpected.
The "sudden death," that we fear the most, however, is the kind that strikes out of the blue. The automobile crash that takes the life of a teenager. The heart attack that strikes down a 40-year-old athlete.
Or, in the recent case of a dear friend, the body that breaks under the strain of sudden illness.
A friend, Elizabeth L. "Beth" Bridges, 38, died suddenly on Jan. 11. Beth had been bothered through the holidays by the same bug that plagued much of the Hampton Roads area of Virginia where she lived. But that cold/bronchitis thing turned into the flu, which turned quickly into a deadly pneumonia. By the time Beth got to the hospital, she was nearly comatose and her body had begun to shut down. Less than 48 hours later, she died.
On the following Monday, Beth's family and her many, many friends held a memorial service. Beth's life was the church. A Christian educator, she had worked for four United Methodist churches in her short lifetime: Corinth UMC in Sandston, Va., and locally at Lynnhaven, Community and Great Bridge UMCs. Beth was also an active member of the Tidewater Emmaus Community and an accomplished musician and actress.
Expectedly, the large church was packed.
The service was an amazing tribute to a well-loved woman. Though Beth left no instructions, the service was planned to perfection, even down to the bulletin printed on paper of her favorite color, goldenrod yellow. Using Beth's well-worn Bible for direction, the four participating pastors gleaned her favorite Bible verses.
And the music . . . well, the music was the most beautiful I've ever heard. Two choirs and a praise band offered their gifts to God and to Beth's cherished memory.
One song opened the way for a particularly moving moment. The choir from Great Bridge United Methodist, where Beth served as director of programs at the time of her death, sang "Thank You." It was a song that told how a man had a dream of heaven, and in that dream he was approached by another man, who said "you were my Sunday School teacher" and then described how the dreamer's work had led him to knowing the Lord.
The chorus of this song was simple: "Thank you for giving to the Lord," sung repeatedly. During the final chorus, people began to stand one by one, until all stood together.
It seemed to me as if each of us was saying: "Thank you, Beth, for touching my life. You helped me to better know the Lord."
I cry even now as I write these words.
Why do humans fear sudden death? I can't speak for others, but for me, it has nothing to so with worries over the afterlife. I believe to the depths of my soul that Beth - like all those who love God - is in a better place, and I believe I will see her again one day when I die.
No, the fear for me comes from not having said goodbye. Though I'd spoken briefly to Beth during the holidays, we hadn't truly visited in quite a while. Though we would often expressed our love for each other, sudden death robbed us of one last hug, one last laugh, one last "Love ya, girlfriend."
As my empathizing friend Heidi Ullrich put it, "What am I doing with my time that I couldn't spend more time doing the thing that was most important, just being with my friend?"
That's the question that haunts us.
My emotions since her death have been a roller coaster. I'm angry one minute, deeply sad the next. I laugh out loud at a funny memory, then cry the next for losing the potential of more memories made. Finally, I shut down completely, feeling empty and void and dead inside.
Through it all, however, I sense Beth saying to me: "Go ahead and feel all that stuff, but know God's right there with you, girl, and I'm OK."