Two years ago today, my grandmother passed away. The death itself was not sudden, but the illness leading to it was. She did have several days of lucidity between the diagnosis of severe infection and the medically induced sedation that managed her pain and kept her from feeling the need to gasp for air as her body shut down. Rather than being a blessing for her and for the family at the end, her clarity of thought broke our hearts.
I’ve seen people die in front of me. I’ve been present as many more have finally chosen hospice—I stayed on their beds and held their hands as they crumbled when the other doctors left the room. And I’ve never seen anyone—believer or not—die with confidence. I believe that it happens—just not as often as we might think. We’ve all heard of famous last words, but there would be so many more if everyone had them. In many ways, modern medicine prevents them. People die after our interventions have left them unable to speak. The last words were before the ventilator was hooked up—but that was so long ago that we can’t remember what they were.
My grandmother was a planner. She had been distributing her possessions for years, and she had saved a box of special ones for each child, grandchild, and great-grandchild in the family along with a letter describing its contents and their significance to her. Her estate was completely in order. She had said her goodbyes to her dearest friends at church. She had written the program for her funeral. For someone who seemed so prepared for death and so at peace with its nearness before her final illness, she surprised me with her words in her last days.
“I just don’t think I’ve been a very good Christian…”
“What if we’re wrong?”
“I’m not as scared of dying as I am of what happens afterward.”
These words weren’t produced from a cloud of dementia. I actually felt like this was the ultimate clarity demanded by a desperation for truth that many of us will never experience until the time for knowledge has all but run out. She questioned everything I had watched her confidently believe and live out my entire life. So many others do the same. A few months before Pascal’s mother died, she said almost the exact same words my grandmother had said. I answered her with the scripture she loved. Although I could relate to her doubt, I wept because she was dying in such darkness. I battle this now with the hope that I won’t have to at the end.
My grandmother had planned her funeral down to who would sing what song. It was the most beautiful service I’ve ever been to, and also one of the most difficult. So much of the service answered the doubt my grandmother died with—the doubt I was drowning in. Each of her four children spoke about life with her. The most touching eulogy was my dad’s, because he attributed his triumph over decades of addiction to her love for Christ that she also nurtured within him.
We sang her favorite him—“Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” by Helen H. Lemmel. Then, as requested by my grandmother, my mom sang her favorite song of all: “No More Night” by David Phelps. I’ve usually done all the crying I can do by the time I get to a funeral. But this funeral came after one of the darkest weeks of my life, and the promise of Revelation 21:4 and the words of that song were just too much. Can I hope for a future without pain and tears and darkness when it sometimes seems like they are the only thing that’s real? My grandmother did. That song was her manifesto, and she offered it to us after her death to remind us of where her hope always was, even though we couldn’t see it through the darkness at the end. Even though she couldn’t see it, either. The lyrics are powerful:
I don’t know if the darkness broke on the other side of her last breath. All I know is that she believed that it would. She had significant doubt, and she had no significant amount of time to resolve it. Doubt and darkness and death were rolling in like a tombstone in her last days, and then she died two years ago this Easter Sunday.
But if Easter tells us anything, it’s that dead things can live again. Even after darkness and death and a shaking earth and a closed door, light and life and peace can break through. Even though my grandmother died in darkness, she left us a song about the victory over that darkness—a victory she didn’t experience while living. She still had hope because of Easter—because she believed that even Jesus didn’t have victory over death and sin until after he took his last breath.
Some people maintain their faith until the end and lead victorious lives. Some people, like my grandmother, live with doubt and die in defeat. That’s where I am today. But on Easter Sunday, I can still have hope for something more. I can remember how the story goes—Jesus didn’t defeat death until after he died. I can remember that the prevention of total destruction might not be as glorious as the perfect rebuilding afterward. I can remember that the most dazzling light is not the dim one preventing total darkness at twilight, but the first piercing beam after our eyes have grown accustomed to having no light at all.
I’m getting tired of wrestling, and maybe that’s okay. There is a good chance that I will never figure this out in my lifetime—even if I develop certainty one way or another, it could unwind at the end of life. If there is nothing beyond this life, then it doesn’t matter. But if God is real, then my hope has to be in resurrection. Resurrection of life, resurrection of faith, resurrection of the joy I have not known for the past few years. I’m about to join several hundred people who gather in a building to worship a God who brings life to dead things. I may not be able to worship with them, but even in the midst of darkness, I can remember my grandmother’s life and death and join her and them in the hope for no more night—even if my doubt is not defeated until after my last breath.
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