It is impossible not to consider whether there is meaning to our existence when a vibrant life ends.
(originally printed in the Portland Press Herald, February 21, 2015)
It is difficult to discern a meaning of life with all the seemingly insoluble problems of the world. Especially vexing is to find meaning when a family member dies in the prime of life. As I added the chart of John, who died at age 40, to those of my patients who have died over the years, it was impossible not to consider whether there is meaning to our existence when a vibrant life ends with struggle and agony, a seeming defeat of all love and hope.
I have attended a number of my patients’ funerals, and they have given me an encouraging perspective for coping with loss and the meaning of people’s lives. As I entered church for the service, there was a table of photos representing John’s life. First there were baby pictures along with a family photo at his christening, followed by him in elementary and high school. There were photos of John in his black cap and gown during his high school graduation. Later, John is seen standing in front of the company he founded in Maine. There were wedding pictures and snapshots with his wife and sons during vacations. The last picture was John sitting in a wheelchair, gaunt from the ravages of his illness and bald from chemotherapy. Alongside him were his wife and children, also bald, visible testimony of the love John’s family wanted to demonstrate during his illness. Standing at the end of the table of photos, I pondered: Is this all there is?
In the sanctuary, I found John’s grieving wife and children sitting with his brother and sister, numerous nieces and nephews, and his parents. At the beginning of the service, many in the congregation had tears in their eyes as family members recounted John’s life.
The minister told John’s family that grieving was appropriate and proper, but then read the 23rd Psalm. Written three millenia ago by King David during a time of travail in his own life, the psalm sings: “The Lord Is my shepherd, I shall not want” (v. 1) and ends triumphantly “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (v. 6).
The next reading was from the Book of Job, the quintessential book of suffering. Job, after the loss of his children, his possessions and his health, was still able to shout: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes – I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19: 25-27).
Finally, there were the comforting words of Jesus: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God (the Father), trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14: 1-3).
From Genesis to Revelation, the pastor remarked, there were many other passages that reveal that God is in control, that He will make all things right in this broken world at the end of time, and there will be a happy ending for those who love God. The service ended with the hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” a rapt acclamation of the future.
As the funeral service closed, there were still tears for a husband and father who was loved and would be deeply missed. However, there was also the confidence that John’s life had meaning despite his suffering and early death, and that we would be with him again.
I am continually challenged to make sense of patients’ struggles, which I witness regularly along with deaths that are too often untimely. If I want to be encouraged how all will turn out for John and others for whom “The Lord is my shepherd,” I go to a funeral.