It was the afternoon of April 8, 2006. I was making my way back to campus on a charter bus along with a large group of Project Phoenix tutors and middle school students. We had just spent all day on Project Phoenix’s Big Trip, in which we took our kids to a ropes course to reward them for all their hard work in tutoring.
Despite the rain, we had an awesome time. I felt like we had made a real difference in our kids’ lives. It was one of those days when I feel like I make a real difference in the world. It was one of those days when I feel like life is truly a gift from God.
Then the tutor sitting next to me on the bus received a phone call. It was one of her friends telling her about the accidental death of Zach Vaughn, a tutor in Project Phoenix. She was so shocked she could barely stop herself from crying. She told all the tutors in the front of the bus.
The news saddened me greatly, but it failed to have the same profound emotional effect on me as it did on the female tutor. The tutor made it clear to us that she had not been friends with Zach, but had known him through other friends. At first I could not place Zach’s name with a face. It would take me the entire day to realize that I had tutored with him on several occasions.
I was greatly disturbed that I did not feel immediate pain and remorse over Zach’s death. Part of it was that I did not know him well, but a greater part of it was that I had become used to deaths on campus.
I felt more of a sense of frustration than a sense of loss. I remember thinking, “Not Again!” The girl I was talking to was only a freshman, so she had not experienced the deaths of the past few years. She was less jaded and more innocent than I.
The more I look back on these thoughts, the more they disturb me. In the past few years I have distanced myself more and more from deaths on campus. I think it is a natural human reaction.
The only loved one I have ever lost was my grandmother, who died a year ago. Her death caused me more pain than I thought was possible. I didn’t want to accept that she had died. After her death, I dreamed that she was still alive.
Death is something that we can’t wrap our minds around. It is something that we naturally want to avoid, because even though it is the natural end to life, death is completely foreign and unknowable to us.
I have been surrounded by death this year. It has not affected me directly, but it has deeply impacted those I love. Near the beginning of this semester, I learned that one of the campers from the camp I worked at last summer was brutally strangled in her own home.
At first I found comfort in the fact that I not been her counselor, that I had some distance from this tragedy. But one of my good counselor friends from Finland had been her counselor. I found it amazing that death could cross an ocean, that grief does not respect international borders. Distance started to become less of a comfort to me after that.
Then around Christmas this year, one of my mother’s dear friends passed away from a long and protracted fight with cancer. My mother cried on Christmas day as we were opening presents. She could barely hold herself together.
Death had invaded my home, and there was little I could do in face of death. There was little I could say to take away the pain.
I will be honest: I am a devout Christian. I am planning on going on to seminary in the fall, and hopefully into the ministry after that. Many non-believers might believe that my religion is a crutch, a shield to protect believers against the brutal fact of death.
I can’t speak for other Christians or people of other faiths, but I will tell you from personal experience that I find little solace in faith. It actually makes dealing with death harder.
I believe in a benevolent God that has a plan for every one of us. I believe in a God that takes an active role in our lives. So when such tragic and senseless deaths like the ones I have described occur, my mind is left struggling for answers.
Part of being a minister is dealing with death regularly. Even though I am an articulate man, I often find myself lacking words when faced with death. How will I be able to comfort my congregation when I can’t even comfort myself?
I know there are answers to these questions. Perhaps they are beyond the abilities of human verbalization, but I know deep in my soul the answers are there.
But I can say that whatever faith you are, or if you are no faith at all, you cannot distance yourself from death. It may work for a while, but inevitably the effort is futile.
We must face death. We must face our fears. We must allow ourselves to mourn over Zach’s death. We must allow ourselves to feel pain and to be comforted by friends and family. We must not fool ourselves by believing that emotional and physical distance can protect us.
If you are struggling with death, I recommend you read “A Grief Observed” by the well known Christian writer C.S Lewis. This short book is basically Lewis’ attempt to keep sane after his beloved wife and friend Joy died from bone cancer.
In the book Lewis theorizes that grief is just another stage of love. Just as summer gives way to fall, and fall to winter, Lewis theorized that our love goes through seasons.
Lewis believed that none of us would experience spring in this lifetime. That season lies beyond the wall of death. My faith in Christ leads me to agree with Lewis. But whatever you believe, know that I and many others are praying for you. Do not allow distance to steal your loved ones away from you.