Death with Hope, a Christian View
By Margaret Gayle
(A summary of the book, The View from a Hearse: A Christian View of Death, by Joe Bayly)
Birth and death enclose man in a sort of parenthesis of the present. The brackets are impenetrable. Death confronts us with its blank wall, always there waiting for us. Death always waits. The door of the hearse is never closed.
Why the Book
Joe Bayly dedicates his book The View from a Hearse to the memory of his three sons, Danny, John, and Joe, whom he says “introduced us to death—its tragedy, its glory.” Writing the book as a meditation on death and grieving, Bayly says he wanted to show that God has not promised His children an easy death or deathbed visions of glory. What God has promised is an open door beyond.
The book has a special message for those facing death of a loved one, those still in the throes of grief, and for those preparing to die. From a Christian point of view, peace with death doesn’t come from understanding everything that happens to us, but in knowing the God who is in control of everything.
Throughout his book, Bayly weaves a fabric of hope, with the reasons for that hope. He tells of sitting next to a little boy’s mother in the waiting room of Philadelphia Children’s Hospital the day after they had buried their almost-five-year-old, who had died of leukemia. He was there to thank the doctor for the wonderful care he had given their son during the nine months from diagnosis to death. Learning that the little boy had the same type of illness as his son—and wanting to offer hope to the mother—he chose his words carefully: “It’s good to know, isn’t it, that even though the medical outlook is hopeless, we can have hope for our children in such a situation. We can be sure that after our child dies, he’ll be completely removed from sickness and suffering and everything like that and be completely well and happy.”
The mother’s reply reflected her complete lack of hope and the hopeless plight of many people.
“If I could only believe that! But I don’t. When he dies, I’ll just have to cover him up with dirt and forget I ever had him.”
Three of Joe Bayly’s seven children died at young ages. Those deaths explain his decision to write this book. He was intimately acquainted with the pain of death and was all too familiar with what he once called this enemy’s grim violence. But he was even more intimately acquainted with the One who conquered that enemy forever.
The certainty of death, Bayly observed, is often the focus of man’s insecurity and fear. Philosophers have pondered the subject since the beginning of time. Socrates held that the essence of philosophy is preparation for death, that confronting death is the key to life. Bayly believed that accepting death frees a person to live.
The Psalmist expressed the same thought in his prayer, “Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalms 39:4).
Death overtakes life in a multitude of ways: disease, accidental death, mass killing, genocide, suicide. But God reserves to Himself the power over when we die. Bayly tells of being present when several medical doctors were discussing the termination of life. One doctor expressed his opinion: “I am convinced that God decides the issues of life and death. One patient dies, another recovers, from what seem to be very similar situations. A doctor once administered a several-times-lethal dose of morphine to a severely damaged infant and the infant did not die. I think God did not want the child to die.”
The assurance that God controls the issues of life and death gave Bayly and his wife confidence during the crisis period with their sick child. He tells that shortly after their five-year-old died of leukemia, someone asked him how he’d feel if a cure for leukemia were then discovered. His answer was that he’d be thankful, but it would be irrelevant to the death of his son. God determined to take him to His home at the age of five; the means was incidental.
What Dying is Like
It was Voltaire who said, “We begin to die as soon as we are born.” Death is one certainty of life, permanent, irreversible. Bayly reminds the reader that death is a terrible enemy, even for one with faith in God. Death, the enemy, has not yet been destroyed.
In our present cultural moment, death has often been banished from our homes to the hospital, where doctors and nurses replace the family. Thankfully, the growing hospice movement is making it more possible to arrange for members of our family to die at home. Hospice focuses on easing the pain, emotional and physical, and professionals help the patient and family view death as a natural process of life.
Bayly shares the intimate details surrounding his son’s death.
“Our little boy died at home. He began to bleed at six o’clock in the morning. The doctor came a little later and said, ‘I could put him in the hospital, and he could have a massive transfusion. Maybe he’d live a few days longer, maybe not.’
“We chose to have him stay at home, in the familiar bedroom, with his father and mother, to comfort him and love him and talk to him about Jesus’ love and heaven.
“In the previous months, when we knew that he had leukemia—and even before—we had talked naturally about these things, and he had responded with the simple faith of a child in what his parents tell him.
“Now he didn’t want to go to heaven. He wanted to stay with us in the familiar home. (What little boy wants to leave his mother and daddy, his brothers and his sister?)
“At two thirty in the afternoon, he died.
“In Jesus’ words, he was ‘carried by the angels’ to heaven.” (Luke 16:22)
Bayly describes death as a wound to the living, stating that the wound is most painful, the grief most unremitting, when the bell tolls for one who is part of your own family. A natural response to death is proper and healthy, but what is a natural response?
For sure, a natural response to death would include grief, tears, an overwhelming sense of loss, desire to be alone, or to have social contacts limited. For some—even for Christians—it may be to question God’s wisdom, or His love. Bayly asserts that honesty with God does not turn God away from us but brings Him near. It may even hasten the healing process.
Guilt is another natural response to death’s wound. All of us hurt the person we love at times, and in life we have a chance to straighten things out with “I’m sorry, please forgive me.” But death closes the door on making amends. Bayly urges a person who feels guilty to find forgiveness. He should certainly cry to God for forgiveness, but if after months of acute grief, someone does not experience forgiveness, he should seek help from a pastor or religious counselor.
Other natural responses to death may include idealizing the one who died, feeling bound to the one who has died, or fearing your own death. In admitting that death wounds, Bayly also states that wounds are meant to heal, and given time, they will.
He suggests that emotional investment in other people could be a part of the healing needed for death’s wound. Acknowledging that the death of their three children was devastating to their mother, Bayly attributes his wife’s stability to the fact that a succession of needy, hurting people stayed in their home for periods of time after their children’s deaths. In ministering to the healing of others, his wife—and he—found healing.
At the end of his chapter on managing grief, Bayly states that when the wounds of death begin to heal, most people find that they are freed from the memory of sickbed and casket and recall the person as he really was: laughing, frowning, encouraging, working, playing, life-size!
How to Comfort
If we want to help the sorrowing person to move forward in living, Bayly stresses that we should encourage him to grasp reality quite firmly. This is not denying the reality of death’s separation; it is strengthening reality in his mind. Honest expressions of feelings and tears are valid. The viewing of the body in its casket—no longer condemned as barbaric—often helps the survivor accept the finality of death’s separation.
Sensitivity in the presence of grief should usually make us more silent, more listening, says Bayly. An arm about the shoulder, a firm grip of the hand, a kiss. These are the proofs grief needs, not logical reasoning. Immediate help is often needed, but in the first few days, it may be better to let the surviving person make some decisions, face some of the implications and problems, than to do everything for them. The aim is to balance immediate with continuing acts of thoughtfulness and love.
Another piece of advice Bayly gives is to occasionally mention the one who died, recalling an incident or happy occasion from the past. This will usually bring healing rather than pain to the person who is still grieving. Our silence sometimes will raise the question, “Do we really miss the one who died?” Mentioning the one who has died assures the survivor that he is not alone in his sorrow.
Our efforts to comfort should be simple and matched to the need. An invitation to a meal, an offer to prune a tree, inclusion of a child who has lost a father on a fishing trip—these are areas of encouraging a healthy, forward direction in a life that would otherwise be desolate and impoverished. Bayly gives a powerful statement at the end of the chapter on comfort, Time heals grief: love prevents scar tissue from forming.
Prayer and Terminal Illness
The Christian person who learns that he has a limited life expectancy is usually open to praying for healing or submitting to the praying of others. Bayly deals mostly with the issue of the effects of prayer for healing on a terminally ill person. He explains that tranquility usually follows and adds that in prayer we are trusting God to do what medical science is powerless to do. An element of tranquility is a sense of peace. If close relatives of the ill person share his Christian convictions, a sense of God’s control—His love and oversight permeates family relationships.
Bayly is clear to point out that prayer for prolonged life is not wrong. But such praying should not obscure the reality of heaven and its joyful prospect for the person who is ill. Death for the Christian should not be a confused misunderstanding of the will of God to heal; it should be a shout of triumph, through sorrow and tears, bringing glory to God. Death, not healing, is the great deliverance from all pain and suffering.
Prayer for healing should never determine our surrender to God’s will. Bayly shares this personal story: “The summer after our 18-year-old son died, our 16-year-old daughter was at a Christian camp. A visiting minister told this grieving girl, ‘Your brother need not have died, if your parents had only had faith for his healing.’ When our daughter told us this in a letter, I thought about the One who died in His early thirties, the One who loved children enough not to hurt them.”
On Death Celebrations
From a Christian standpoint, the funeral of one who—in life—trusted Jesus Christ is a great affirmation of hope. Sorrow and its expression are appropriate, but that sorrow is hope-filled; it is our own loss that we feel most keenly. We have no sorrow over the condition of the one who died. “More alive than now” is what we celebrate in a Christian funeral.
For many Christians, there is a conflict in considering members of their families who died without giving any evidence of faith. We cannot change the condition of a person in the afterlife, but neither can we know absolutely that one who died did not exercise faith in the closing, private moments of his life. Bayly recounts once observing a deathbed conversion of a New Englander shipyard worker who had lived more than 70 years without faith in Christ. Sudden alarming symptoms sent him to the hospital where his life hung in the balance. Time was short, and his son—a Christian—knew it. Quoting the verse “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved,” the son said, “Dad, that’s the Lord Jesus’ promise.” The dad replied, “Son, I’m coming in.” And he came! During the two weeks before his death, he was often heard repeating the words “everlasting life” and “I’m not afraid.”
Bayly makes it clear that though deathbed conversion is possible today, yet death is a watershed. Jesus Christ is the one way to eternity with God. The alternative is eternal separation from God. In life we decide our destiny at death.
In answering the question that arises why a kind God allows suffering, Bayly says our peace is not in understanding everything that happens, but in knowing that God is in control of sickness, health, and death itself. We accept life’s mysteries and sufferings unexplained because they are known to God, and we know Him. This world is in rebellion against the kind God, and we live in a world of evil and sin and pain—where, as Jesus explained—God’s enemy is at work. In this world of evil, God’s primary work is not to shield us from suffering, but to conform us to the image of Jesus Christ. A Christian’s response to suffering is a powerful testimony to the reality of Christian faith.
Two Kinds of Death
The Bible uses the same word for death to describe the event of dying, as we know it, and also to describe man’s spiritual condition. Death is a state of sin and darkness in which all men are alienated from God, the fountain of life and light. Jesus described His mission on earth this way: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). And He made a great claim for Himself, related to death: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25).
Bayly acknowledges that death is a mystery, and the Bible does not answer all our questions. But what it does tell us is that by the death of Jesus Christ on a cross, death itself has been conquered, its bitter sting has been removed, and—in a day yet to be—it will be destroyed.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).