Making my peace with death and life

By Elise Seyfried

MANY YEARS AGO, on an elementary school field trip to a local nature center with my daughter Julie, I volunteered to put my hand under an electron microscope for observation by the class. What on earth was I thinking? There, suddenly flashing on a big screen, was a picture of a patch of epidermis so scaly I was sure an iguana had been swapped in—but no! It was my hand, all right. That was the first time I
fully grasped the reality of aging.

The complexion the students and I were “observing” looked much less dewy and youthful, and more lizard-like, than the one I’d imagined I still had. So much for the 16-year-old me I had been carrying around in my head! I remember feeling depressed for weeks after that. Seeing myself clearly, wrinkles and all, was jarring and unpleasant. I hated the thought of growing old.

Now I am in my 60s, and I have experienced quite a few deaths—the deaths of my parents, aunts and uncles, and the untimely death of a sister. With increasing frequency, I’ve been losing good friends as well. In moments of despair, I have looked at these deaths as final punctuation marks in the story of their lives. Even as a person of faith, it’s been a struggle sometimes to truly believe that my loved ones live on. At those times I feel stuck, and I long to break free of my doubts and fears.

In his book, The Holy Longing, Jesuit priest Ronald Rolheiser challenges us to consider the many death and life cycles that take place within our lives. Every time we start a different job or move to a new place, every time we learn a new skill or shed a bad habit, we are continuing this pattern of life to death to life again. We humans are part of nature, after all, where caterpillars become butterflies, and trees shed their autumn leaves in order to bud anew in the spring. Everything changes; everything grows. Everything dies and then is re-born in a new way.

And we are a part of our God, who as Jesus died and then rose again. His resurrection is the ultimate reminder that death is not forever—and it is nothing to fear. This is part of the “Paschal Mystery” (death to new life) we are all invited to enter. The Pascal Mystery is transformative: We die to ourselves and receive new life in the Holy Spirit.

Examining our lives as part of a continuum that includes multiple “deaths,” as Rolheiser suggests, is a way to better prepare ourselves for a future that will, one day, include our physical deaths as well. The goodbyes and hellos begin to feel like natural (and even welcome) progressions, instead of upsetting and unsettling aberrations. Beyond that, failing to take note of these deaths, and grieve these losses,
results in a great emptiness inside of us. Our happiness, Rolheiser writes, depends on our response to this ongoing process. Christ is always with us in our suffering and offers us new life. But new life only comes after some kind of death.

I now recognize the ways in which I have died, many times, to my old selves. These deaths— the ends of ages and stages in my life that I had lived and loved—have all been somewhat traumatic. I reluctantly died to the self of my 20s, with its endless career possibilities, weekends to sleep late, and carefree chances to travel unencumbered by responsibility. Later, just when I felt I’d finally become resigned to being a “fortysomething” who was dealing with the challenges of having teenage children, I turned around and found that I was 55, and those teens were grown and gone. And I anticipate the likely deaths of my independence and my health at some future point. Hopefully, a distant, future point, but we never really know, do we?

It’s quite normal to be a little sad about these inevitable changes and transformations. It is important, though, to recognize that each succeeding chapter is well worth living—and worth living well. I may have died to the ambitions and freedom of my 20s, but in my 30s I relished the joys of a more settled career path, a life partner and children. In my 40s, I may have died to the excitement of a houseful of little ones, but I also bid farewell to many of the responsibilities and much of the stress of parenting those children. By doing so, I could savor my life’s next stage—middle age, filled with the comforts of a home in a familiar town, and kids who became wonderful young adults. I was able to continue doing my church job, while also launching a writing career. I couldn’t stop the passage of time, but I could learn to see the future as a place with not only sorrows, but also many rewards and delights stretching ahead for me.

Without recognizing and, yes, mourning, all the little deaths within our lives, it’s all too easy to cling to the past. We’re afraid that our losses diminish us, so we deny their existence. We cling to old dreams, old visions of ourselves. We may try desperately to keep looking younger, spending money on miracle anti-aging creams, and clothes from the junior department. We may refuse to acknowledge that some of our life choices may have closed other doors for us. When we hold onto former days this tightly, it’s awfully difficult to reach out—to embrace, honor and celebrate the older, wiser people we are continually in the process of becoming. According to Father Rolheiser, this kind of holding on also stifles our spiritual lives.

As parents, we grieve the end of our children’s babyhood, often putting away the cribs and toys with tears in our eyes. It is entirely appropriate to shed those tears. Would we really ever want them, though, to stay babies and never grow up? Of course not. We understand that they were created to mature, to move on from infancy. And we realize that it is our job to let them go. Can we extend that same grace to ourselves, and stop trying to hold ourselves back?

As Saint Augustine wrote: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” This is our holy longing. By making my peace with the reality of death and life as a continual and natural cycle, I can find rest for my soul. I can find the peace of Christ. And I can find joy. What am I, what are we, waiting for?

ELISE SEYFRIED is the author of four books of humorous spiritual essays. Elise is director of spiritual formation at Christ’s Lutheran Church in Oreland, Pennsylvania.