A Pandemic Observed
What mourning my husband and son taught me about the fear of death.
We buried my baby in a wooden box in the crook of the arm of his father. My husband was thirty-seven and had died in a car accident coming home from his work as an Orthodox priest in a sudden snow storm on a Sunday afternoon in March. My son was born at twenty weeks gestation about two weeks before his father’s death, but the ground was too frozen to bury him in the cemetery plot just then, so the funeral home offered to keep the tiny body until spring. But when his father died too, it was considered worth the use of the special machines used to thaw the ground for a winter burial in New England, and so there was some comfort in knowing the two would lie together.
My husband’s face had been destroyed in the accident which took him on the Feast of Holy Orthodoxy, the day we celebrate the restoration of the icons to the use of the church after the iconoclast heresy had attempted to remove all images from worship. My ten-year-old son had recently painted an icon of the Holy Face of Christ which he decided to place in the coffin with his father thinking it would suffice to provide a face for his Dad. It was good theology for a ten-year-old, the second-born of his theologian father, as it is in Christ that any of us can hope to have any wholeness at all. The strange coincidence of the feast on which my husband died often strikes me as painfully ironic but on my best days, it is a hopeful sign of the restoration of those faces someday in the Resurrection.
Though the car skidded on the ice and rolled three times, coming to rest in on-coming traffic, in a strange miracle, my six children, who were with my husband at the time, not only survived but were completely unharmed except for one black eye and one scratched finger needing only a small band-aid. The children were tended immediately, but my husband was instantly killed because he was thrown from the vehicle. At the time, I was at home recovering from the miscarriage.
In making arrangements for his funeral, I learned that priests are buried with their faces covered by the aer, or the cloth that is used to cover the gifts of bread and wine offered in the liturgy. This is to signify the shroud of Christ and the offering of the priest back to God as a sacrifice. A regular open casket could take place, as usual, with his face covered. His hands with the freckles and the fuzz of reddish hair were the only visual aspects left to assure me it really was him — that, and the strange way his shoes turned out in that duck way they always did from a hip abnormality he had from birth. It added some kind of strange comedy to the solemn scene of his church funeral.
And so he was buried and a carved stone icon of the Resurrection was placed over his head, and we all marveled that God had decided to take so remarkable a person: son and brother, husband, father of six living children, dear friend to many, a musician, and a poet, soon to get his PhD in theology and recently recognized for his intellectual work by some of the leading minds of his field, he was recently ordained and assigned to his first parish only six weeks prior. As a priest from our former parish said, “as we have buried such a dear seed, from it we expect a tremendous harvest.”
Three of my children and myself were first exposed to a known COVID-19 case on the five-year anniversary of my husband’s death but did not hear about the exposure for over a week. I looked to my six children and wondered if any or all of them would be the next to lie with their Daddy and brother, or if I would be the one to leave them totally orphaned. Now that the oldest was seventeen and the youngest seven we had finally settled into some kind of regularity, though I still struggled daily with a deep darkness.
As I watched the pandemic and lockdown play out, I observed it from a place of intimacy with death and mourning. Very often I wondered if that was the case for our leaders and decision makers. It appeared to me death was being approached officially as an anomaly instead of a certainty, and disease was being treated like a strange exception instead of the rule. We ticked off each COVID-19 death one by one through mass media in a way never done with any other cause of death before.
Of course, this seemed justified at the time because, in a pandemic, each death is another piece of the puzzle, which is helping us to understand the disease, and, to be fair, in the early days we had no idea what it might do. But I began to worry about our nation’s response to the disease about the time our own self-imposed family quarantine was over. The lockdowns were in full swing and no exit strategies were even allowed to be spoken of without the accusation that anyone considering reopening to a more normal sort of life simply did not care about humanity.
It seemed that so many were willing to make a bargain with whoever might be offering that they would do anything to save others from sickness and death. While this was certainly generous and completely understandable (and I am sure I too would have been tempted by it before I had lost my husband and child), it caused me alarm now that I was already in mourning. I could see that these well-meaning, deeply loving people simply could not imagine life without their dear ones and so they were ready to make any sacrifices that were asked of them to keep death at bay.
I totally identified with the contradictory and confused feelings of the bereaved C.S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed when he said about the loss of his wife, “her absence is like the sky spread over everything” but elsewhere saying the loss is, “like an amputation.” Both are true. But as a mourning person it is my personal daily struggle to go on living the best I can, with myself and my world utterly altered.
In our fear of death we simply do not want to think about what happens after our loved ones die. But we must. We seem to be willing, in our understandable terror, to trade away many essential things: basic freedoms, our public life and public institutions for the promise of greater safety from sickness and death, but when that sickness and death come anyway (as it must), what will we do when we find we have made the world worse than it otherwise might have been? If we trade the beauty and order of our society for safety, not only will we find we have lost our dear ones anyway, we will sit and mourn them in a desolate land of our own making.
There is a dark part of us all that wants the world to match the pain we feel. I think this is the primary work of mourning people: to refuse bitterness, to choose life every moment we can (and repent when we fail) and refuse to make the whole world worse just because we are hurting. The world is already a graveyard; it does not have to be hell.
The real tragedy is not a person dying young, but a person whose life becomes a kind of death. Those people are truly, “dead before their time.” My husband was not dead before his time. He had really lived right up to the last moment and accomplished so much.
In the intervening five years I have, at times, upbraided myself for all the ways I could have kept my baby and my husband alive. I concoct alternative scenarios in which we would all be at home before the snow started falling and I would have taken better care of myself to keep from having a miscarriage. But I know this is a dangerous line of reasoning. While surely some of my choices and my husband’s choices did indeed affect the final end result, to place all the blame for accidental death on a survivor just results in that person too, succumbing to a torturous depression that is a kind of death in life.
Just like it’s counterproductive to suggest to a woman who has miscarried that she continue to ruminate on all the ways she might have been responsible for her child’s death, or suggest to a spouse or caregiver that they might have done something different to save their loved one, it is also wrong to suggest to everyone that they should tear themselves up with guilt over the deaths of the most fragile. “Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will.… So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:30).
The pandemic has demanded that we siphon all our lives through the internet. The corporal works of mercy seem to have been made incorporeal, better to be filtered through big tech. Someone is making a lot of money when we funnel all our relationships, commerce, education, recreation and even worship through a third party. This new disembodied way of living is an effort to be “safe,” but it seems Christ’s example suggests we must become more embodied, not less. We already know that however safe living on the internet might make us from some kinds of physical threats, the new cancel culture and persistent internet aggression has opened up whole new ways to devastate and be devastated.
In avoiding the pain of my own life, I find the lure of being dis-incarnated very seductive. The internet — that glittering indulgence of the eyes — is an infinite stream of the finite, wherein you can pretend to lose your loss, and your body with its limitations. There, I can temporarily avoid some of the pain of my present life.
But, God Himself, pure spirit, became a real man with a real body. It is a continuing argument I have with Him that He took the bodies of my dear love and child from me at the same time that He insists on the Incarnation of Himself. My argument with God goes something like this: You say it is so important to be incarnated, to become a human with a body and yet you expect me to be satisfied with this husband and son of mine whose living bodies are gone from me? You expect me to commune with them as far away spirits while you lived as a man. Which is it, God? Is it good to be incarnated or not? To which I wonder if God’s response to my objections might be something like: your dissatisfaction, my dear, is exactly My point. This is not the end. We await the Resurrection of the body.
St. Paul says that Christ died and rose again to set us free from our fear of death which is a kind of slavery that has held us in bondage from the beginning (Hebrews 2:15). How do we understand the lives of the martyrs in a pandemic? “They endured mocking and flogging, chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, sawn in two, put to death by sword. They went around…destitute, oppressed and mistreated,” says St Paul. But he concludes, “The world was not worthy of them” (Hebrews 11:37).
Pandemic was actually very common throughout history and, through those times, the saints went right on fulfilling Christ’s commands to feed and clothe, care for, and love others. It’s very possible some disease was actually spread through the charitable acts of the saints, if it was God’s will. It’s not that those saints were too uneducated to know that this could happen, it’s that they made a conscious choice to care for others in a physical way in spite of the risks to themselves and even the risks to those they cared for. Why did they do this? Because the people around them who asked for their embodied love needed that embodied love more than they needed long lives free of suffering.
Even though humans make choices that are real, no sickness or death happens without God’s permission or involvement. Or at least Christians used to believe this. Forcible, physical segregation and perpetual isolation is usually used as punishment. Are we so sure that the negative outcomes of these safety measures won’t outweigh the positive?
Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Christians have always been noted as those people who did not practice abortion, euthanasia and suicide. They considered life precious, but their saints famously did not pursue the lengthening of their own individual lives to the detriment of their own souls, nor the souls of others. The martyrs did not count their own physical deaths as much compared to what awaited them (Romans 8:18) And that’s not because they undervalued this present life. Christian saints often laid down their lives for other people but there were also some things they simply would not do — like worship idols — not even to save a life, not even the life of their own child. If we want to be people of integrity, we must imitate their example.
I fully expect, if we are living as Church, there could be large outbreaks of COVID-19 in Christian communities, just like in any other human encounter, should God will it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” And if we are blamed by the authorities for being “super-spreaders,” it would not be the first time in history.
No one blames a person for going to the store for groceries and spreading or picking up germs there, but it seems worship is being approached more like a concert than like “daily bread.” But gathering for Sunday liturgy and fellowship should be a help to facing the possibility of death, which is exactly what we need right now. A priest’s job is not to keep me alive; it’s to help me live and die well.
Christians should never judge someone who chooses safety from suffering and death as did the early Donatist heretics who cast out of the church those who fled persecution. However, Christians should neither judge nor exclude those who choose honorable risk either. A principal of non-judgment is our example. Force and manipulation should be rejected whether that force or manipulation be in favor of risk or against it.
My husband wrote in a sermon shortly before his death: “God created man in the year 33, on a hill called Golgotha.” Christ, declared his great work “accomplished” from the agony of the cross. It is in union with Christ that we become who we ought to be, and so how can we escape death when even Christ did not? In one of his last sermons, my husband suggested to his flock, “….may we make our own these words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, written to his fellow Christians on his way towards martyrdom for refusing the idolatry of pagan Rome: ‘It is better for me to die in Christ Jesus than to be king over the ends of the earth… The pains of birth are upon me. Allow me, my brethren; hinder me not from living, do not wish me to be stillborn… Allow me to imitate the passion of my God …when I shall have arrived there, I shall become a human being.’” (Epist. ad Rom., 6).
The week my husband died, I heard one of my younger children ask my oldest, who was twelve years old at the time and had been sitting in the front seat in the accident, why he didn’t tell Daddy to put on his seatbelt because that would have saved his life? Alarmed, I immediately told the children that we were not to ask such questions. God decides when people die. Daddy usually wore his seatbelt. It is a mystery to me why he didn’t put it on that day. I see before me an entire nation of people being encouraged to ask similar terrible questions of themselves and others. There is a great mystery between God’s will and human freedom. We should not pretend to understand something we do not. Christians have never held that death is only a game of chance. It is unconscionable to burden people with guilt for the deaths of others just for going about their lives, especially for the deaths of the most fragile, when death awaits us all.
The night before the accident I found that the middle bench seat in our van was not properly latched into the floor. I tried many times to get the seat to engage into the floor, but it would not budge. The seats were stuck in an unlocked position, the red plastic warning showing. As my fingers became numb with cold, I finally said a prayer, “God protect my children,” and I did the sign of the cross. When I went to the wrecked van after the accident, the seat was locked into the floor as it should be: the red plastic warning no longer showed. At some point before the rollover, it had locked itself into place and the children were basically uninjured.
I must believe that the death of my husband and my unborn son were the will of God. To do otherwise would not only cause me to degenerate into someone I do not want to be, it would be to deny my faith. I could choose to take total responsibility for those deaths, but practically speaking what would that accomplish for my children other than my own disintegration? I could blame my husband for his own death or for endangering our children. But how would that help? I know he loved them and me deeply and I know he valued his own life. Any mistakes he might have made that contributed to his own death he certainly paid for, crushed against that hard surface of reality.
I could blame someone else for his death or my child’s death: family members, friends, doctors, highway workers, but that would only multiply the destruction. God alone knows the level of anyone’s culpability in their own deaths and the deaths of others. And should we know for a fact that someone has contributed to a death or perpetrated a murder directly, Christians teach that God is ready to forgive. When it comes to causes of death we must refrain from judgment, and throw ourselves upon the mercy of God or risk making the already bereaved nearly as dead as the people they miss.
God gave human beings freedom with which they often create chaos, hatred and torture. But it is by that same power of freedom that we also love. God took an extraordinary risk in His great benevolence. Human freedom has created no end of misery, and it is easy to blame God for the evil humans create with their freedom. But is it God’s fault if we continually use for evil the tools He gave us for good?
God not only risked the loss of our souls to give us the capacity to love, but He also took that risk even further in the Incarnation, wherein His pure spirit took on flesh that ultimately died, just as ours will. We cannot avoid death, but we do have a choice about how we should spend our life. Should we squander it, buried like the gold from the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25), or should we face the risk and live out the adventure of our own lives?
I do not believe, and I think it injurious to me and my children to act out that the death of the body is to be avoided at all costs. Nor do I believe that death is ultimately only something that happens if one does not take the proper precautions. Nor do I find it edifying to imagine that the primary way death comes to us is through the normal breathing and natural movement of other people around me. Even if this is true, acting this out will inevitably create fear, distrust, segregation and xenophobia. When we encourage this attitude, we further enslave people to their own inborn fear of death and isolate them from each other.
We never admire the character in a story who will do or say anything to stay alive a little longer, or who pressures other people to put themselves at risk or even die for him. We admire the person who, if the normal living and breathing of others could cause him to suffer or even die, would rather risk suffering and death than ask someone else to stop living and breathing for him. Of course, this takes a courage we don’t actually have. We need grace. A Christian imitates Christ and does not shrink from a fully incarnate life. I fail at this every day. I am terrified of death. But on my better days I am even more afraid of what I could become if I let the fear of death become my master.
In an internet news report on my husband’s accident someone wrote in the comment section, “Well, God was not his co-pilot! LOL!” While that thoughtless joke probably represents my own worst temptation, on my better days I believe that the God who can fasten seats to the floor of a vehicle before an accident can send his angels to remind the driver to put his seatbelt on. Who am I to say God was not with my husband in the moment of his death? I know he prayed for that every day and I trust God to be merciful.
The question isn’t will I die? Or will the people I love die? The answer to that has always been, yes. A better question might be will I let the anticipation of death make me and my world, better or worse?