Richard Exley Ministries

When Death Comes

Nothing in life really prepares us for the death of a loved one, especially if that death is totally unexpected.  Although we know that people – even children – die every day, we never think it can happen in our family.  And with good reason, for it has been estimated that the average person can go through a twenty-year period without being exposed to the death of a single relative or friend.

Still, sooner or later, all of us are confronted with the inevitable.  It may come unexpectedly – a phone call in the dead of night, notifying us of our brother's sudden death, or a uniformed police officer quietly informing us of a fatal auto accident involving our son or daughter.  Or it may come as the long-awaited blow at the end of a lengthy illness.  However it comes, it is always painful and inevitably followed by grief and an almost overwhelming sense of loss.

I won't pretend that I know entirely what you are feeling or that I can fully comprehend the depth of your grief.  Nor will I pretend that I have all the answers to your tormenting questions.  In truth, all I really have to share is my love and the painful lessons I have learned while dealing with my own grief and while helping others deal with theirs. (click here to continue reading)

My first experience with death came when I was just a boy of nine.  Mother was taken to the hospital some time in the middle of the night and Grandma Exley came to stay with my two brothers and me.  For the next two and a half days Mother struggled to give birth to her fourth child.  She succeeded only after the doctors belatedly performed a cesarean section.  I was too young to understand any of this, but I can remember the laughter and cheers when Grandma told us that we had a baby sister.  In minutes we were announcing it to the neighborhood.

Some time later, Dad came home and gathered us three boys around him.  He was bowed with weariness and grief.  With great difficulty he told us the painful news.  Yes, Mother had given birth to a daughter, our long-awaited sister, but things didn't look good.  She was a hydrocephalic baby, and wasn't expected to live.  Even if she did live, she would never be normal.

Tears were running down Dad's cheeks when he finished and I seemed to be smothering; I couldn't get my breath.  I sat there numbly for a minute more, then I burst off the couch and ran through the dining room and kitchen, choking on my sobs.  The screen door slammed against the house with a frightful racket as I flung it open and stumbled down the back steps toward the garage.

For the better part of the next hour, I lay with my face buried in the dirt floor.  Great heaving sobs convulsed my small frame, and it seemed everything in the universe withdrew, leaving me alone with my pain.  The dusty floor mingled with my tears, becoming mud, and I pounded my fists into the ground until I had no strength left.  After a long while, my grief seemed to exhaust itself, leaving me with a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I think I accepted Carolyn's death that afternoon, though it was not to become a reality until just before Christmas, three months hence.  The intervening weeks were filled with several crises.  Once, Dad and Aunt Elsie made a flying trip to the children's hospital in Denver.  When they arrived, Carolyn was critical, at the point of death.  The doctors were able to stabilize her condition and, after she had spent some days in the hospital, we brought her home for the last time.  Vaguely I can remember Mother placing her in my lap, as I sat in the armchair, and watching with a painful love as I fed her a few ounces of formula. 

It seemed that each day brought some new disappointment.  Soon we realized that Carolyn was both blind and deaf, and her head, larger than the rest of her tiny body at birth, became increasingly disproportionate.  With a pain that lingers still, I remember watching Mother day by day as she bathed Carolyn tenderly, then carefully measured her head to see if, by some miracle, it was any smaller.  It never was.  Mama would bite her lip then, while silent tears ran down her cheeks as she carefully put away the cloth tape measure. 

Carolyn died in her sleep, at home, early one morning.  Our family doctor and Aunt Elsie arrived at about the same time.  He, to make the official diagnosis, and Aunt Elsie to fix breakfast, which no one ate, and to see after us boys.  A short time later, the mortician came and took Carolyn's tiny body away and the gray December day passed in a maze of necessary activities.

The funeral service and the trip to the cemetery have been completely blocked from my memory, leaving me without a single detail.  I do, however, remember eating supper after the funeral.  Grief rendered the food tasteless but we ate anyway, mechanically, out of some misbegotten sense of obligation.  We ate in the kitchen with one small lamp the only light.  It left deep shadows around the table, shadows which matched the sorrow in our hearts.  To this day I cannot remember a sadder meal.

As a child I was able to accept Carolyn's death without affixing responsibility.  It was enough to know that she was with Jesus, in heaven, where there is no more sickness or pain, no more sorrow or crying.  By Christmas her death was already becoming a painful but fading memory.

The questions came later, after I became a pastor and found myself ministering to families in similar situations.  Their desperate questions gave birth to my own:  Was God to blame for Carolyn's death?  Did He kill her, or at least allow her to die?  Questions like these drove me to my knees.  Desperately I searched the Scriptures for understanding.

After months of painful agonizing, I concluded that sin, not God, was responsible for disease and death.  That is not to say that Carolyn's death was the result of her own personal sin, or even, God forbid the sin of her parents; rather, it means that sin has tainted the entire human race and that disease and death are the inevitable consequences.  Romans 5:12 (KJV) declares:  "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men...."

In my counseling with those who question why humans must suffer, sometimes I simplistically explain that we inhabit a planet which is in rebellion, that we are part of a race living outside of God's will, and that one consequence of that rebellion is sickness and death.  God doesn't send this plague upon people, nor does He will it.  It is simply a natural consequence of humanity's fallen state.  Although, as believers, we are a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), we remain a part of this human family -- a family which is tainted by sin and death.  As a consequence, we too suffer the inevitable repercussions of that fallen state, even though we may be personally committed to the doing of God's will and the coming of His kingdom.

In truth, the cause of sickness and death is not God, but the hated enemy, sin.  Not our personal sin necessarily, not a specific sin -- for life and death cannot be reduced to a mathematical equation -- but the fact of sin.

As you well know when death strikes unexpectedly, we long for a reason, an explanation, but often there is none.  In desperation we try to make some sense out of it, but often there are simply no pat answers, no ready conclusions.  In times like these we must always resist the temptation to speak where God has not spoken.  Beyond the simple explanation that death comes as a result of humanity's sinful state, God has not given us any insight into the "why" of individual deaths.  

In many ways death remains a mystery, even to the Christian:  Why is one child taken in infancy and not another?  Why is a good man stricken in the prime of life, leaving behind a wife and children, while other vicious and cruel men live to a ripe old age?  Why?  Why?  Why?  The questions are almost endless and I must admit that I am often without answers, but of this one thing I am sure -- God is not to blame!  In fact, when tragedy strikes, when a loved one dies, God's heart is the first of all hearts to break!

This article has been excerpted from 

“When You Lose Someone You Love” by Richard Exley
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