How Facing Death with Others Teaches Us

My mom’s final breaths came the Saturday after Thanksgiving 2020. After two decades of dreading it, I was surprised by so much of the dying process. Rather than wondering if God had abandoned us, as I thought I might, I tasted and saw something of the Lord there that I can barely describe — yet instantly recognized.

There is beauty tucked inside the death of a believer, like the blood-red amaryllis bloom hidden for months within a dull, brown bulb. In a flash, the reality we’ve held on to for so long is revealed to be but a dim mirror. The temporal gives way to the eternal, and we bear witness before it evaporates again.

There is at the bedside of a believer — along with the searing pain — a form of the glory that made Moses’ face glow radiant, a taste of a God who turns the worst we can imagine and renders good from it, a grace that astonishes us even here, and a God who whispers, “See, I am doing a new thing!” (Isa 43:19).

“Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (1 Cor 15:51).

What I witnessed in my mom’s death that day is a theme I now sense reverberating across the pages of Scripture, a note I hear hummed in beloved, old hymns: The darkest night gives way to dawn. The seed that dies breaks open and bears fruit. Where there was only bleak Friday and bewildering Saturday, resurrection bursts in.

But that light is only made brilliant by its contrast. We do not get Easter without the noonday darkness of Golgotha. The death part of our story matters as much as the life. And it gives us words for so much of what we experience in our daily lives in a body and a world that still groan, that still wait for resurrection to break through.

Until then, death is a drumbeat thumping across our experience of this present world — a deep rhythm that does not jump out on its own but is always there, steadying us, sobering us. As I learn to hum and walk along with its melodies and limits, I find that death is not just a subject to be saved for the very end. As a thread woven into the fabric of our lives on earth, death has a great deal to teach us about living them.

Even if you don’t have to consider death right now. Odds are you will soon. Someone you love is aging in a way that startles you every time you see them. Someone you know is sick or dying; perhaps your own bedside vigil has begun. Someone you care about — maybe it’s you — is deeply afraid of not having enough time, not having enough answers, not being enough in the end.

When death comes, grief is inevitable. But there is more we can render from it than a feeling of loss. There is deep value in developing a theological category for deadly diagnoses, aging, war, and the ache of losing someone. This theology of suffering helps us put skin on the idea that God might still be good when all is going wrong.

Our culture gives us plenty of opportunities to ignore these trappings of a dying world, to swindle us with a story of our own permanence and immortality. But buying into that won’t serve us in the long run. When we don’t allow God to teach us as well as comfort us in the face of death, we miss out on the fullness of a faith that neither cowers before nor fast-forwards past death.

Thinking about death in light of its inevitability is not masochism; it is wisdom. Just like it helps to develop a theology of suffering before we dive headlong into it, it serves us to foster a theology of death before we are desperate for one.

How can God be good in the midst of death? How can a God who claims victory over death still allow it? How on earth do I grieve with hope?

I have not answered all of these questions, but I have felt them with my entire being over the more than twenty years since my mom was first diagnosed with cancer. The Spirit groans some of them for me now as I continue to wade through the grief of losing her presence on earth.

But I have also felt God’s goodness in this valley of the shadow of death — where the one who cannot break his promises says He will be with us. When the questions threaten to overwhelm me, I find my heart redirected to the feet of a Savior who faced death for me and faces all of its vestiges with me.

Rather than wanting to run from discussions of death — as I did for so long — I now want to press into them, to wring from one of the hardest trials life has to offer every drop of sanctification and glory. I see now that having a front seat to my mom’s final days has forever changed the ones I have left to live.


Adapted from We Shall All Be Changed  by Whitney K. Pipkin (© 2024). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.

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