Notes from Niflheim: Death and Children

 

RDG Stout

Last weekend I picked up Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory from the local library. Ms. Doughty is the host of the “Ask a Mortician” web series and the founder of “The Order of the Good Death” over on Facebook. Her backstory is pretty straightforward: innocent, eight-year-old girl is deeply traumatized by seeing another young girl plummet to her gristly demise, and now as a millennial young adult seeks to change the unhealthy denial of real death (as opposed to the glorification of fictional carnage) rampant in American culture.

Her book is nothing earth-shattering, but it’s a quick read and worth the time. I stumbled upon Ms. Doughty’s work in my followings of Caleb Wilde’s similarly themed blog, “Confessions of a Funeral Director.” Like Ms. Doughty, Mr. Wilde seeks a revolution in the ways that we deal with death, or rather our refusal to do so. Both seem to have a healthy following, though both have also been accused of being a bit too Generation Overshare.

Theirs seems a decent quest. As someone who’s worked in both churches and trauma bays over the years, I can attest to our culture’s general befuddlement when it comes to the grave. Then again, mine is not a particularly normal perspective on such matters. I honestly can’t remember when I saw my first dead body. Nor do I have any idea as to how many people I’ve buried, scattered, or otherwise memorialized. What I can tell you is that my record in the hospital was six violent deaths in six hours, from midnight to morning.

Death has been a reality in my life for as long as I can recall. Raised religious, I was always taught that a good death at the end of a long life was an accomplishment for which to prepare, and that untimely or tragic death never has the final say. “Teach me to live that I might dread / the grave as little as my bed,” indeed. As a young child, I remember family walks through the graveyard behind my grandparents’ house. I found it neither macabre nor morbid, but peaceful. Here rested so many people who had walked this same path before me. Here I was full of questions, and these silent stones reminded me that those here interred had found answers. Death may be scary, but the alternative—life without an ultimate aim in mind—seems unthinkable.

Nor have I ever viewed age as a bad thing. In truth, it’s been nothing but kind to me so far. Aging has let me outgrow childish neuroses and embarrassing inexperience. It’s made me stronger, calmer, wiser, and most importantly given me a family. I feel sort of sorry for folks who pine for their twenties, or worse yet their teens. Sure, I had fun back then, but I’m glad it’s over now. The older we get, the more real life becomes. Who would want to go back? I have a feeling that 35-year-old me wouldn’t have terribly much patience for my 25- and 15-year-old iterations.

Of course everything changes when we become parents. Growing up I lost grandparents, aunts, uncles, family friends, high school friends, my Dad. These losses always kept death in mind, but in such a way that it made me appreciate life. I didn’t go Goth or anything like that. But then kids come along—and suddenly there’s something in life so much more terrifying than your own death. Before parenthood, everyone has a different set of fears. After parenthood, there is only one fear, to the exclusion of all others. It is a hard bargain.

My wife and I were given a rather dramatic introduction to Every Parent’s Nightmare when our son, our first child, was born blue. Here we were all ready to take him home to the nursery, to start a new life as a family, and before we could hold him he was intubated, thrown on a plane, and flown to the opposite end of the state for $300,000 worth of heart surgery. All I got to see was his one little half-open eye staring uncomprehendingly at me before he left.

Don’t worry. He’s fine today. In fact, he doesn’t remember a thing. Even that massive scar has faded almost to invisibility. But his mother and I will never forget, and that jolt of terror never fully goes away. Even when the next two were born perfectly healthy and happy, I found myself sneaking into their rooms at night to place my hand on their chests, to feel them breathe. I still do that. We have friends who have lost children. They humble me.

(It’s funny, but I’d always assumed that Shakespeare’s Sonnets were all romantic poems. Then I started reading them, and found that they sing of how children stave off any bitterness associated with aging and death. Clever man, that. We should read him more.)

I work with undertakers all the time. They tend to have great senses of humor, deep compassion for the grieving, and incredibly healthy and grounded worldviews. In fact, my affection for undertakers is what led me first to the works of Mr. Wilde, then to those of Ms. Doughty. Working routinely with funeral directors, caring for bodies, and walking with families as they perform the last great duty that any of us can perform for a loved one, you start to think that death really has lost its sting. Easter arises triumphant.

But when I look to my children, happily turning our lives to chaos, so full of life that we haven’t slept through the night in half a decade, I still feel that spasm of fear. I don’t fear dying, and I never have; but the thought of them going before me is absolutely terrifying. At such times the casual, even cocksure attitude of the preacher is laid bare, and we are revealed as vulnerable to the Reaper as everyone else.

And so I cling ever more tightly to the Cross, to the God Who is a family, to the God Who lost a Son. Sometimes I am less amazed at the promise of life arising from death than I am at the idea that God continued to love us even when we killed His Child. That’ll bring me to my knees every time.

RDGStout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories.

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