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Dealing with Death -- and the Survivors

by F. Forrester Church

I knew only this about the young couple driving me to the airport Just before Thanksgiving, they lost their 8-week-old baby. No one knows why she stopped breathing but she did, another victim of sudden infant death syndrome.

Their minister told me the story. When he arrived at the emergency room, the baby was barely alive, having been revived and placed on a respirator The doctors held out no hope.

As he and the child's father stood helplessly by, her mother sang to her baby. Sweetly and softly, she sang her favorite hymns. "For the Beauty of the Earth," "Transcience," Autumn Fields."

The following morning she requested that these same hymns be sung at her daughter's funeral.

As we traveled together toward the airport exchanging pleasantries, I tried to summon the courage to bring the subject up. This shouldn't have been difficult I do it all the time.

But for some reason I couldn't muster the necessary presumption to shift our conversation away from the weather arid the morning's news. That is, until they asked me about my family.

"Do you have children?"

"Yes, a boy and a girl"

"How old?"

I couldn't go on.

Just as I was about to tell them how sorry I was about their baby's death, the young man said matter-of-factly, 'You should know that we lost our infant daughter this fall."

"I do know," I replied. "Irving told me. Nothing is more tragic than the death of a child."

"It's interesting," his wife commented from the back seat. "Sometimes I get the feeling that other people have a harder time dealing with it than we do. It's so real to us. We know what we've lost. But other people can't face it. They can't talk about it. They're frightened."

"They're frightened of us, too," her husband added, "as if we had some kind of disease that they might catch if they got too close." Or say the wrong thing, I thought sheepishly to myself

"I know exactly what you mean. In this liberated age, the only taboo left the only subject almost no one dares to talk about in polite company, is not politics or sex or religion but death."

"We're doing pretty well" he continued. "Cathy's right about that but we could sure use some help, and not just from the therapist we're going to. On any given day, one of us may need to work on the past, just as the other is to break free from it and focus on the present or make future plans. Yet with the whole world, our family and friends, tiptoeing around us, we are left almost wholly dependent upon one another."

"It's funny," the wife added. "Though most people can't seem to handle talk about Sally's death, are awkward around us and even shy away sometimes, when we are together with them laughing or chatting about some silly thing, I get this odd feeling that we're being judged, as if our behavior were somehow inappropriate."

We went on talking together; about the conspiracy of silence involving death, about how the most natural thing in the world has been turned into a monster that people are frightened even to name, about Sally, about their decision to try to have another child.

Just before we reached the gate, I said, "You know, in God's eye, Sally's life is just as precious and blessed as your life or mine. Whether 8 weeks in duration or 80 years, when viewed in the light of eternity, the length of one or other. What really matters is that she taught you something about how precious life is, and how much we need one another. Even in her dying, Sally touched and changed her little corner of the universe."

"You may be right," Sally's father said to me softly.

"I know one thing," her mother added in a bright, clear voice. "Now, when someone I know loses a loved one, I'll be there with a casserole and all the time in the world."

(This article is reprinted from the Chicago Tribune, Jan. 8,1988 issue).


 

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