Thursday, May 5, 2011

On the Shock-Value of Death

I didn’t think I could still be shocked by death.

It was a rookie mistake and I realize it now. Over the past four-plus years, I have learned of the deaths of countless others and not one came as a shock. But today I was more shocked by a death than I have been in over four years.

The odd thing is that the person who died was not someone I was particularly close to. It’s just that she was one of those people you always expected to be around and quite often took for granted (and sometimes didn’t exactly take seriously). She had an abrupt nature, but she had a passion for teaching children about Jesus. She raised two children to adulthood and subbed in the local school system. Like I said, just one of those people you always expected to be around.

I learned of her death via e-mail from the group server at church. It came through on my phone while I was finishing up with some students, so I didn’t read it until I got ready to leave for my next location (I work in multiple buildings). I’m used to getting e-mails from the church server announcing anything from births to deaths to who has nursery duty on Sunday. So as I sat in my van and read the e-mail it took a second before I really grasped whose name I had just read. I was certain it was a typo. I mean, there had never been an indication that anything was physically wrong. I might have believed it had it said her husband’s name, who is less than the picture of health, but HER? Don’t get me wrong, she wasn’t the picture of health either, but she also didn’t appear to be unhealthy.

Appearances can be deceiving.

I do not have the full story on exactly what happened, but as best I can ascertain, she was fine one moment and asking her husband to take her to the hospital the next. They were en route when she took her last breath. Just like that.

As someone who has been touched so deeply by another’s death, you would think that none of this would shock me, but as I mentioned before, she was a fixture in our lives. She was rarely one to miss church on Sunday or Wednesday. She often had a special treat for the kids, both the ones in her class and the ones from various other classes. She sent Christmas cards to all of the kids, including my own daughter. If she was going to miss a Wednesday night, she often made sure her class was covered a month in advance (unlike me, who is lucky to remember to get coverage a week in advance!) It was important to her that kids know Scripture, so she spent a lot of time encouraging them to memorize it both in and outside of the church building. She also often made sure that children had Bibles and Bible story books to take home, sometimes even if they already had one. She was just one of those unassuming women that people took for granted.

Until she was gone.

After I read the e-mail, I responded to the pastor to let him know that my co-teacher and I would plan on combining our Wednesday night class with hers until they found another teacher (they had sent an e-mail out recently saying we needed more volunteers for the children’s program, so I knew we were already short). I then e-mailed my co-teacher to let her know and included the statement that I would be surprised if the associate pastor didn’t want to talk to the kids tonight himself, but that I was planning to be prepared to address it with them just in case. Later in the day I got an e-mail to that effect, and I breathed a little sigh of relief. I knew that I could talk to the kids about death (who better than me, right?) and I was glad that I was willing to do so, but I really didn’t want to. Each time I wrote or received an e-mail I continued to be in disbelief that I was actually writing this particular woman’s name.

I waited till we arrived home to tell my daughter. She was too young to have ever been in her class, but I knew that she would be affected by her death, nonetheless. She took the news about how I expected her to. She was shocked, then sad, then melancholy, and eventually she was okay again. She had lots of questions throughout the evening and I explained them to her in much the same way I always do. I also explained what I thought would transpire at church that night (and was mostly right, as it turns out).

What I didn’t expect was for her husband to be there tonight. After my wife died, I avoided anything social that wasn’t funeral related – church, work, invitations of any sort – for a few weeks. The last thing I wanted was to face people who had been thrust into this intimate situation, but would not have normally been privy to any information about my private life. But everyone is different. And I think that as much as I needed to be away from social events, he needs to be enveloped by them right now.

He was still downstairs when I went up to the kids’ room. Our associate pastor did an excellent job of explaining why people die and what people need to do to ensure that they will go to Heaven. He also made certain to mention that it was okay to cry, as he himself a tall, bearded, former Marine, wept over the death of this woman. The kids were given a time to ask questions and share memories, and some of the other teachers and parents shared memories as well. It was a lovely tribute as well as an important time to explain the complexities of death and Heaven to a roomful of children who primarily had not been touched personally by death.

The discussion ended before church let out downstairs, so it was up to my co-teacher and I to take the kids to another room to talk to them some more. I have found that kids will often share things with a teacher before they will a pastor or principal or other person of “importance”. So I began by reminding them that they could always ask us questions, then if they had any or down the road if needed, and that they could certainly talk to their parents about it as well.

During the day, my co-teacher had suggested that we have the children memorize a verse of Scripture, as that was something that this woman had been apt to do with many children in the church. During the day I had thought of some, and one in particular had stood out during the associate pastor’s talk. But when I suggested this to my co-teacher, she mentioned that she had asked the husband what one of his wife’s favorite verses was. It made sense. It made it personal. And I am glad she had the foresight to ask him this very important question. So she gave me the verse and I read the first line to the children.

And that’s when I finally got choked up. I think I had still been in such shock that she had died, that I hadn’t really gotten to the point that I could grasp it emotionally. Sure, I teared up a little at my daughter’s reaction and certainly felt a few slide down my cheek during the associate pastor’s talk, but those were all reactionary tears. This was the catch-in-my-voice, this-is-really-happening kind of choked up. My co-teacher was across the room getting supplies with her backed turned, so she didn’t immediately see what had happened. I’m certain the kids were all staring at me, but I couldn’t look at them as I tried to regain my composure. After a few attempts, I knew it was going to take a moment or two. Thankfully, my co-teacher had come over by that point and offered to take over as I handed her the Bible. She did an amazing job of reading and explaining what was still caught in my throat. It took a minute or two to get my voice back, but I did and was able to join in the discussion after that.

After class she and I talked a bit more about things. Even though I had gotten choked up and she had to take over for a few minutes, I believe I could have gotten through the talk if it had been left up to us. I also felt good at knowing I would have included most of the points in the associate pastor’s talk, especially since I have no formal training in the Scriptures, other than what I have learned through church and my own personal reading. I could have done it if I had to. But I’m really glad I didn’t have to.

I am not typically one to quote Scripture – here, on my Facebook account, or even in person. I believe in the authority of the Scriptures, I just don’t often quote them unless someone wants to hear them. But I feel it would be remiss if I didn’t share with you the Scripture that our children are learning in memory of this woman, whose death will be mourned in our church a bit longer than most. It comes from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, chapter 33, verse 3 (King James Version as that was her favorite also). It says “Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not.”

I wrote most of this last night, but then the computer froze up and I wasn’t able to post it. The passage of another day has allowed the shock to lessen a bit.

But even as I hit “publish post”, there is a big part of me that still can’t believe I’m writing this about her.


  1. i am so very sorry to learn of the death of this woman. i very much like the Scripture from Jeremiah. when i was a young girl, i also had a Bible School teacher who had all of us memorizing Bible Scriptures. i never forgot mine. i was very shy as a child and did not like to speak in front of a class. i remember her telling me that i had gotten the shortest sentence in the entire Bible and that that was nice for me since i was so shy.

    the scripture is from the Book of John. Chapter 11. Verse 35. "Jesus wept." it has seemed fitting for quite a bit of my life, especially of late. i think of that scripture and know that i am not the only one who cries.

    i will keep this woman's husband, her family, friends, and the entire congregation in my thoughts and prayers. i wish you all peace.

  2. I, too, am sorry to read this .... and sad for the children, you and everyone else who knew her. Yes, we can still be shocked at the death of someone. And, interestingly enough, still feel completely helpless. A very close friend's mother died yesterday. It wasn't a surprise, but still .....
    I'm sad that I'm out of the state and won't be back until after her funeral. I'm sad that I can't be there for my friend. And I have no words of wisdom for her, or .... as we all know .... no words that will take away one iota of her pain.
    I'm glad that you were there for the kids .... and let them know that you always will be.

  3. ohhhhhh, I'm sorry to read this. And sorry that you had to feel "that" hurt again. Big cyber hugs to you.