Social media is a strange place. Some days I recoil in horror at the level of either foolishness or cruelty. Other days I laugh at hilarious photos of dogs doing what dogs do, and bask in joy as my friends celebrate new babies, new books, weddings and travels to glorious places.
I think what touches me the most, though, is how every single day there is a post about someone’s passing, or someone enduring great loss or calamity. Some days there are multiple such posts.
Most of us live our lives in fairly small circles of family, friends and neighbors. Death does not knock on our door all that often. I mean, He does, but we don’t live with a constant awareness of His presence until someone in that circle takes His hand and travels to the Otherland. Once a year? Twice a year? But every day?? That seems a lot. And it fills me with compassion for all of us, and how fragile and astonishingly precious our lives are.
There is a nun, Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, who is reviving the ancient Momento Mori (Remember You Shall Die) tradition of contemplating and meditating on one’s own death daily. Her website quotes Psalm 90:12: “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” I find her work interesting if a tad too focused on heaven. That’s just me, though. I don’t happen to believe heaven is somewhere we go when we die if we’re good.
Slight digression: I remember many years ago asking a Presbyterian minister where she thought we go when we die. She replied, “We don’t go anywhere. We’re already walking through the body of God.” Yeah. I like that.
But Sr. Theresa’s on to something. She even has a lovely momento mori journal you can buy on the site I linked to above, and I am a sucker for a nice journal. She says she has a ceramic skull on her desk to remind her of her impermanence here on earth. I have a little one made out of labradorite on mine. His name is Gregory. He’s good company.
Buddhists, as well, encourage the practice of meditating on our own death. It is recommended we practice daily, sitting with this idea of our own passing. This, we are told, helps to put things in perspective. All the stuff we think is some important, maybe it isn’t. All the sparkly things it seemed so imperative to acquire… we’ll leave them all behind. And one day… one day… no one will remember us. Like a hand pulled out of a pool of water, we will leave nothing behind.
And that’s okay.
But back to social media. I wonder if, in a way, social media outlets like Facebook haven’t become (partly) a modern, technological memento mori. I have quite a lot of ‘friends’ and followers, it’s true. Some of them I even know outside of social media, but many I don’t and will probably never meet. Still, when I see someone is undergoing chemo, or has had a stroke, or someone’s partner has been killed in a car accident, or died from suicide, or a beloved pet has died (as mine soon will), I feel connected to them, and I grieve with them. When, as occasionally happens, I am reminded of someone’s birthday only to go to their page and find they’ve passed, well, it’s at the very least a needle to the heart.
Then I remember the story I heard long ago. Here it is:
A woman wept at the beside of her beloved husband, a man so near to dying that Death had already entered the room.
The woman was both terrified and nearly immobile with grief. But she mustered her courage and said, “Dear Death, please, please, don’t take my husband. He is all I have in the world. He is the only person I love in all the world and without him I will be destroyed. I am begging you, please let him live.”
Death raised His finger and shook it slowly. “I am sorry for your sorrow, but your husband’s time on earth is over and now I will take him with me.”
He approached the bed but the woman flung herself over her poor, sick husband’s body and begged and begged and pleaded and pleaded and moaned and cried and begged some more.
Finally, Death said to her, “I will make a bargain with you, woman.”
“Yes, yes! Whatever it is, I agree, just save my husband!”
“I will let your husband live a long, long life if you can do one thing for me. You must bring me a piece of bread from a house whose family I have never visited. If you do that, I will let your husband live.”
The woman kissed the cold feet of Death and promised to be back quickly. She rushed out of her house and was about to go next door, but then remembered her neighbor’s uncle had died not a month before. So she went to the next house, knocked on the door and asked the woman who answered for a piece of bread, since she had heard no news of death from this neighbor. Then, just as she took the piece of bread, still warm from the oven and wrapped in a pretty cloth, she thought to ask.
“Ah, I am sad to say my cousin passed away six months ago. Kicked in the head by a horse. What a good man. So young. How we miss him.”
“Oh, I am so sorry for your loss. I hadn’t heard.”
And so the woman gave back the piece of bread and went to the next house. But there a baby had died, having lived only a few hours. And in the house beyond that, a boy had drowned in the river the year before. And in the house beyond that, the mother had died in childbirth. The woman became frantic, running from house to house, farther and farther away, as the day darkened to evening, and then to night, and she was banging on the doors of people she barely knew, and then on the doors of perfect strangers, who thought she might be mad.
But it didn’t matter how far she went, or to how many homes. Death had visited every house.
At last, the woman, filled to the rims of her weeping eyes with sorrow for all those who had died, and all those who grieved, turned toward home, burdened by her failure, and trying to understand. She came to her quiet house and entered. She found Death sitting at her husband’s side, holding his hand and murmuring soft words in a language she didn’t understand. Her husband looked at peace.
“Did you bring me a piece of bread?” asked Death.
“I did not, of course I didn’t, and you know why.”
“Tell me,” said Death, in a gentle, kindly tone.
“Because there is not a house you haven’t visited.”
Death smiled his very white teeth. “And so you understand. I visit every house. Every one. And now I am visiting yours.” Death picked up her husband as though he weighed no more than the feather from an owl’s wing. “Death is the way of life,” He said.
The woman was crying, but her tears no longer scalded her, no longer tore her cheeks. “And I will see you again,” she said.
Death turned at the door, her husband’s head cradled on his shoulder. “Oh yes,” He said, “I will not leave you behind.”
And that is the story of how Death comes to every Door.
I find that story comforting since, like social media, it reminds me I am part of a community of lives, all of which have their seasons; their beginnings, middles, and ends. Death, like birth, is a universal experience. There is no reason to fear it since more people have done it, have gone before us, than they’ve done anything other than be born! Although grieving is just as inevitable, it is softened by knowing others have gone through eviscerating grief and learned to go on, live, and be useful in the world.
It also reminds me to treat everyone not as if I’m going to die later today, but as if they are… because we never know when that’s going to be true.