Auburn Unitarian Universalist Society
Submitted to the Auburn Citizen for October 2, 2011
Perhaps the most important topic for all clergypersons to address is what I will call “the fragility of life.” All of us face it multiple times in the course of our careers. We experience it when we are called to a home following a fatal auto or hunting accident, or when a “too-young” person, seemingly in excellent health, suddenly drops from a heart attack. As a widower, I am well-acquainted with the hollowness, the void, the feeling of emptiness that accompanies the death of a loved one. Although I have found new love and joy, I accept the presence of grief at weddings, graduations, and all of the family events that we expected to share together. What has changed over the years is that I accept grief’s presence, but not its total debilitation. I was fortunate because, before she died after nearly six years of fighting breast cancer, my wife pretty much ordered me to find someone new. She loved me enough to not want me spending the rest of my days grieving and feeling miserable. It was, perhaps, the greatest gift and act of love that she could have given me.
I realize that not every widow, widower, or surviving family member has the luxury of time to speak about death, let alone to make plans or bless future relationships. My late wife’s brother was killed by a pair of drunken teenage drivers when he was 27. His widow and I have discussed the vast differences in how we were thrown into widowed futures. This is one of the reasons why I encourage couples to have wills prepared—no matter how old they are—if only because it forces them to speak about the unthinkable. Do they want to be buried or cremated? If there are children, who should raise them if both people die together? All of us are a drunk driver or a cardiac event away from death. Both of my sons, who are in their young twenties, have already lost classmates or childhood friends.
As a minister, perhaps the greatest privilege or honor comes when I am invited into a family home following a death. I call it an honor because it is a time when individuals and families are most vulnerable. It is a time when healthy families come together, and unhealthy families feud. In those moments, I am called upon to mediate, either the divine, or whatever power will sustain people through the agony of loss.
We also learn that life is not fair. It is capricious. Some truly rotten people never get caught, and some really good people get caught short in the lifetime sweepstakes. We also learn that grief is cumulative. That part of our souls that serves as the vulnerable spot for all of our losses becomes more sensitive from the thud and pounding which accompany each new loss. I tend to think that anyone who tells you that death becomes easier to accept after repeated experiences is suffering from a calloused soul. While we may learn something about how to navigate our way through Grief’s troubled seas or through the thickets of its forests, each new loss creates its own waves, and leaves a distinct imprint that will remain with us, both consciously and unconsciously.
I have become attentive to this, and gained a greater appreciation for the fragility of life. It has led me to savor the moments that I have with those I love; to make extra efforts to either speak to, or, spend time with the people who matter to me; and, to tell people how much they mean to me. After all, we never know when someone we know or love will suddenly die.
This was brought home to me following a pair of recent family deaths. One was anticipated; the other was sudden. One was particularly poignant because it was a cousin who was my age, and we had shared numerous family celebrations during childhood, as well as family reunions when we, ourselves, were parents.
It is not my intention to write a morbid column, or to leave you feeling sadness or even self-pity. Once we become attentive to the fragility of life we learn to savor its joyous and celebratory qualities. We learn that time is meant to be lived and spent, rather than hoarded or banked away, as though we can reach the moment of death and say “Hold on, I took a nap and didn’t spend 20 minutes on a sunny day when I was 15,” or, “I want credit for all those mornings that I overslept on weekends!”
It is precisely the fragility of life that calls upon us to embrace those we love more closely, and to strive to deepen our relationships. This is also the time of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, or, “at-one-ment.” In other words: becoming one with those with whom we have fallen out of healthy or positive relationship. No matter how long we live, we will all experience loss. It is part of the human condition. Cherish the time that you have, and truly spend the moments that you are able to share with those whose lives are integral to yours. Life is too fragile, and time is too valuable to live otherwise.