My circle of friends has been touched by death several times in the past few weeks. Many of these departures were long-expected; elderly relatives who had been pressing toward the mark finally reached the prize, desperately ill friends who had been fighting the good fight won through to perfect healing.
Does the expectedness make the parting any less painful? Does the opportunity to say goodbye make it any easier to let go? I don’t know. Both my grandfathers passed suddenly, one in an accident that happened so fast that even my uncle who was right there with him had no chance for a farewell. Both my grandmothers lingered on long past threescore and ten; I shared with them what I knew were the last embraces, the last words, the last leave-takings. But when it came to it, though I wouldn’t have kept them here in pain and confusion a moment longer, I wasn’t ready to be left behind.
It’s hard to wrap our minds around this realization that someone we love, someone we can see and touch and talk to today, can be gone beyond our reach tomorrow. As C. S. Lewis said, we of all men hope most of death – we believe and affirm that our greatest hope and joy lie on the other side – yet we can never quite be reconciled to the unnaturalness of it.
In our poor human understanding, we tend to think of farewells, especially final farewells with great sadness. We imagine an irrevocable severing of the ties that bind our loved ones to earth, to us. A vast, impassable abyss seems to open between us.
But as I read a friend’s comment, three summers ago now, about saying goodbye to his elderly father overseas, perhaps for the last time, the words struck me differently. Yes, we say goodbye for the last time. We say goodbye for the last time. When next we meet, it will be beyond these petty limits of physical space and bodily tangibility. When next we meet, it will be outside the walls of this world and outside of time. When next we meet, it will be for always, past parting.