A Thing That Should Not Be

Not Every Death is Fitting
Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arche communities, appears in the documentary "Summer in the Forest." (CNS photo/Abramorama)

On Tuesday, my inbox and my Facebook feed bloomed with stories about Jean Vanier’s death. The founder of L’Arche, who’d written so movingly about life with disabled people, had died of cancer at ninety. I was struck by two things: first, the people who called his death “sad”; and, second, the fact that most people didn’t.

It’s normal to call death sad, and most deaths are sad. But not all. The death of the saints will sadden the survivors, because their world is suddenly impoverished, but the deaths themselves aren’t sad. They may be triumphant. More often, I think, they complete the story; they round it off, bring it to its proper end. They’re fitting. You don’t feel sad—or not too sad, anyway—because their lives ended once they were complete.

This is clearer in cases of the very old, like Vanier. An extraordinary man lives an extraordinary life that lasts a very long time, decades of loving God and others, and when his body finally weakens, he passes on to the next world. We can see the arc of his life come down where it should. As Vanier wrote in his last message, “I am not sure what the future will be but God is good and whatever happens it will be the best.”

Christian faith doesn’t abolish the searing sadness of death.

Most of the people posting about Jean Vanier on Facebook briefly relayed his death as a fact and focused instead on his life. Only a few wrote about his death as a loss or a sadness. Vanier himself told the Catholic Herald many years ago that he wasn’t frightened of death. “Frightened of suffering, of anguish, maybe. But death will certainly be something really beautiful, really gentle. It’s a passage to life.” In theory, that will be true of any Christian’s death, at any age. The young person who dies, dies at the end of the arc of his life—the arc God set. His death is fitting if unexpected.

But I don’t think that’s true. Or rather, I think it’s true in one sense and not in another. Our experience is much more complex, more mixed, less tidy. The death of an old man who lived well and leaves people who knew they would lose him is one thing. Vanier was seventy-three when he called death beautiful and gentle. The death of a young man, say a husband and father, who leaves people who need him, for whom he cannot be replaced by any other person ever, is another thing. That is a death you should justly call sad.

Much of my work these days involves reading and writing about death. Some of the Catholic writing I read treats death as the occasion of sadness, but much more of it reflects what I call “the happy Catholic narrative.” That’s the attempt to make this world a happier place than it is and the Catholic faith an easier thing to follow than it is. It preaches the ideal and refuses to look at the ways we experience it in the life we live.

A year or two ago, Aleteia published a photo of a young nun smiling ecstatically at the moment she died. The post went viral. A large percentage of my Facebook friends shared it, adding their own cheerful comments or lots of heart emojis. It turned out that the picture wasn’t taken at the moment of her death, and that disappointed many. People liked it so much, I think, because it suggested that death is not death. You can go out smiling, even when young, even when you have your life in front of you. For the Christian, that’s not exactly untrue. But death is still death for most of us most of the time. As I’ve written elsewhere, Jesus wept at his friend Lazarus’s tomb. What must death be, to make the Son of God cry?

A little over three years ago, my younger sister and only sibling went to the emergency room for a blood clot and the doctor told her he could heal the clot, but she was dying of late stage-four cancer. Her spine and other bones were riddled with tumors. Just a month and a half before that, she’d got the first home of her own in the country a few miles from the Maine coast. She had a good car, a job she enjoyed, a church that cared for her, and she lived just a few miles from her oldest friends. She’d had a hard life and she’d finally got it all, only to be told she was about to lose it all. She died six months later. I was with her for most of that time, and let me tell you, her death was a sad death. (I wrote about it here.) Its only joy was that it freed her from her suffering. But it was a thing that should not be.

The saintly Jean Vanier’s death was a thing that should be. We feel that, which explains why so few people spoke of it as a sadness. But we must fight the urge to reach for the happy narrative in the face of every death just because sometimes, in some people, death seems fitting. Christian faith doesn’t abolish the searing sadness of the death of someone like my sister.

David Mills edits the site Hour of Our Death.

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