My First Death

Ginger & Me

Ginger and me.

Ginger, a terrier/dachshund mix, represented my earliest encounter with death. I suspect a pet’s death is a common first experience with mortality. Ginger was only with our family for a short while. One day Dad took her to the vet, returning without Ginger several hours later. Was I seven? Maybe eight? I don’t recall problems with Ginger, but my parents had noticed something suspicious and decided to have her properly checked. Without me participating in the decision, without me even being aware a decision was underway, Ginger was “put to sleep.”

I knew death could happen, but did not witness it.

When ten or eleven, I had a fun chat with John. My parents had invited several couples from church for a lunch after worship. John was the son of one of those couples and arrived with his parents. He was older than me, in his late teens or early twenties. We spent time chatting and joking outside while the adults did boring old people things inside. Amazingly, John seemed truly interested in what I was doing and saying. I have no recollection of our conversation, but recall a warm feeling of acceptance because John chose to spend nice time with me. He died soon after. A car crash, I think. One day there, one day gone.

I knew death could happen, and early on it seemed capricious, unexpected and unfair.

She and Grandpa lived on a magical, wondrous farm . . .

She and Grandpa lived on a magical, wondrous farm

Though other family members died before Grandma—my mother’s mother—I have no idea who or when. There must have been relatives, from a different generation than me, or living elsewhere, or odd names on a Christmas card, who died. My parents likely shed tears, likely attended their funerals. But their deaths didn’t impact me. Grandma’s death did. She’d had health complications that led to surgery and led to her being bedbound. She and Grandpa lived on a magical, wondrous farm and it was weird to see Grandma “trapped” in a room rather than tending her vast garden or fixing mouth-watering meals in her kitchen. And then she died. Grandma never left her bedroom. She never again picked string beans or chased the chickens or hollered at Grandpa to get ready for dinner.

I knew death could happen, but how could it “take” someone the doctors had supposedly “fixed?”

I did my first funeral as an ordained pastor during a student internship. I was midway through seminary, but wanted experience in a congregation. There were other clergy on that church’s staff and they handled most of the baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Nobody wanted the intern to baptize a baby or help ’em say “I do!” Church members wanted the “real” pastor. I was stuck with leftovers. One day a person phoned the church, seeking a pastor. His father had died. Could someone—anyone—do the funeral? The caller wasn’t part of the church, just desperate for help. Guess who got to go? For the first time, I entered a home in the shadow of death. I met the man who’d called and can still picture him: maybe mid-forties, wearing slacks and a wrinkled shirt. Slumped against the corner of a couch in a nice living room in a nice house, he was a mess. A grown man, he wept uncontrollably, barely able to say anything coherent about his Dad.

I knew death could happen, but never realized how it could devastate a person’s whole life.

The first death I witnessed was a girlfriend’s father. She was in the first church I officially served, a handful of years after my internship. Her father didn’t care about religion, had long ago divorced my girlfriend’s mother, and had a sketchy relationship with his now adult kids. He drank. He smoked. He ignored doctors and hospitals until he couldn’t avoid being in a hospital surrounded by doctors. I’d guess he was sixty or so when I knew him. But in a hospital bed, with his ruined body, he looked eighty. I visited him because I was his youngest daughter’s friend. I visited because I was a pastor and a nice guy. I was there when he took his last breath. There were long seconds between one breath and the next. The thin sheet shrouding his chest became still, like a pond frozen in winter. Abruptly, another breath came, raggedy and brief, as if the body had reconsidered its craving for oxygen. And then, and then . . . nothing. I prayed with him and his fractured family before he died. I prayed with them after he died. We trooped out of the hospital room, steps echoing in the wide, institutional corridors, and returned to our homes. We were alive; he was dead.

I knew death could happen, but how could it be so final and casual at the same time?

What are your earliest memories of death?

What has influenced you to share about, or remain silent about, death?

Well over 8,000,000 breaths a year . . .

All experience a final breath, but what will you do with the breathing before that moment? The average person takes 8,409,600 breaths in a year. If you live to eighty, you’ll have breathed about 672,768,000 times.

Death is a mystery. Death is inevitable. Death births dread. Death stuns us. Death occurs in all forms of media all the time, but is rarely—in this era of high-tech hospitals and funeral “homes”—seen in our daily lives.

I believe what I’ve read about soldiers watching buddies die in a battle: their first reactions are less . . . “How terrible my friend died,” and more . . . “I’m glad it wasn’t me.”

Death may top the list of most often avoided subjects.

  • Are we superstitious, fearful that mentioning death will lead to death?
  • Are we wise, discerning that—even as kids—it’s better to focus on life and living?
  • Are we fateful, believing death comes, utterly unavoidable, when it’s “my time?”
  • Are we faithful, trusting in a “Higher Power” to shepherd us from this life to the next?

I recall Ginger the puppy, an “older” guy named John, my beloved Grandma, a stranger weeping at his father’s death, and a girlfriend’s parent that was—and then wasn’t—alive. Past memories shape present reactions and future decisions.

As difficult a subject as death can be, I hope you allow your memories to help you openly share your thoughts, fears, and hopes about—gulp—death . . . especially with those who are the best part of your living and breathing.

mary-oliver

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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