I have here an email from a woman in North Carolina, named Pam, who writes:
“My dad died of COVID-19, and there could only be a few of us at his funeral for obvious reasons. I don’t know how to stay positive anymore, I don’t know how to cope, I’m crying while I write this. He was my best friend and he’s gone.”
Pam, after I read your letter, out of pure reflex I was tempted to say, “I am sorry.”
But I caught myself. People are programmed to say that little phrase without even thinking. We say it because we don’t know what else to say at funerals. It just slips out. I don’t care for the phrase.
I don’t mean to imply that saying “I’m sorry” is insensitive. It’s just that EVERYONE says it. And sometimes, it comes off as insincere.
The day of my father’s funeral, for example, I must have heard this phrase about 24,192 times. By the end of the day I never wanted to hear “I’m sorry” again.
There are other things people could say in these instances. People could always go with something honest, like: “Hey, I don’t know what to say.” Or they could just hug you and say nothing.
But alas, most folks stick with the old standbys. “He was a good man.” “Life is short.” Or my personal favorite: “He’s in a better place.”
Do you know what I wish people would say at funerals sometimes? The truth. As in:
“This really sucks.”
One time, my mother had a momentary breakdown shortly after my father passed. Her emotions overtook her. She screamed until her voice broke. She said over and over again, “THIS SUCKS!!!”
We’d never heard her say that word before. But she was saying how we all felt. And it needed to be said.
The ironic thing is, my mother didn’t talk that way. My mother is a foot-washing churchgoer, a gentle woman who purchases Gaither albums and would be practically free from all sin if it weren’t for Paul Newman.
But sometimes you just need to shout a little.
A few weeks ago, I got a letter in the mail. I read it while standing on my porch. It was from a man who said he had experienced an “NDE,” which I later found out is short for “Near Death Experience.”
At age 44 he died from a heart attack. He was clinically dead for more than three minutes. He said that those few minutes seemed like three thousand years.
One of the most interesting things he wrote was that dying was not like he thought it would be. He said it was like “falling into warm water.” He said he felt safe, and loved.
He went on to say that in those moments of death, he realized that daily life is hard work. “Striving” was actually the word he used here. Endless striving. Striving for food, water, shelter, love, friendship, money, fulfillment, deeper meaning, happiness, cell phone service, decent auto insurance, etc. Take your pick.
But death changed all that. No more swimming against the current. No more striving. He said it was peaceful. He heard music. He felt the same sensation you feel when you cry from pure happiness. He said it was almost like the simple beauty of a flower, blooming before your eyes, only this flower was about the size of three solar systems. I don’t even know what that means, but it sounds pretty.
His words gave me comfort. I guess I’ve always wondered about death.
The last time I ever spoke to my father was on the telephone, minutes before he died. I had no idea it would be our last conversation. I was a kid. He told me he loved me, and he put a strange emphasis on his final words.
It wasn’t long after hanging up the phone that he turned a shotgun onto himself. Ever since then, I’ve always associated death with pain, agony, and sadness. Everyone does, I guess. To most people, death equals bad; life equals good.
But what if I’ve been wrong about death? What if death isn’t at all like I thought? What if it’s not agony. What if it’s not sad?
Have you ever been around a hospital delivery room? You know how the whole hospital lights up like a Christmas tree when new life comes into the world? It’s like a big party, minus the huge cake and the bad singing. Nobody is sad.
Even the baby’s mother, who is performing a bodily feat that belongs in a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not exhibit, is crying happy tears.
She is bleeding and screaming. But nobody in the delivery room is saying, “I’m sorry.” Because why would you be sorry? This is the greatest rite of passage in human life. Sure it hurts, but not for long.
What if in some small way, death is kind of like that, and we’re just too human to understand it? What if the transition from here into Whatever Comes Next is a glorious graduation ceremony? What if there is such happiness surrounding the process of dying that it feels like falling into warm water?
What if there are symphonies playing, laughter from old friends, and love swirling all around? What if your father’s death was accompanied with such dignity and splendor that he almost wishes he could come back, just for a moment, to tell his little girl not to cry?
I am an average man with almost no education. I wish I had the words you need right now, but I am so feeble and I know so little. The truth is, I don’t know what to say.
Susan Smith - May 1, 2020 6:51 am
In the end, it will be alright. If it’s not alright, it’s not the end.
Jan Potts - May 1, 2020 7:18 am
Thank you. I’m reading this on the anniversary of the suicide death of someone I loved very much. Your words are perfect. Thank you.
Annie Franklin - May 1, 2020 7:29 am
Well written as always
Sharon Lawson - May 1, 2020 8:07 am
I can only say beautiful. But that really doesn’t convey what I feel right now after reading your piece. I’m grateful for the help you gave this person in her loss. I think it’s a sense of gratitude. Thank you.
Cathi Russell - May 1, 2020 10:15 am
Thank you Sean! The beautiful irony is that while we miss them on this side, they’re having wonderful reunions on the other side. I try to think of if that way.
Angela - May 1, 2020 11:01 am
Best one yet! Needed to hear this!
Denise DeVries - May 1, 2020 11:02 am
I’ve always tried to say “I can’t know how you feel, I’ve never been there. BUT I’m here if you need a hand tobhold or a hug.”
Terri - May 1, 2020 11:49 am
Elizabeth - May 1, 2020 11:51 am
Wow! Absolutely your best. Wow! That’s just beautiful.
leeboyz86 - May 1, 2020 12:03 pm
I feel sympathy for Pam. That definitely sucks. But for you and your Mom, sucks doesn’t even begin to describe what you went through. I was the only other person in the room the day my dad died from the ravages of ALS. I have to say, I was only sorry for myself. I was happy for him. He was finally released from the terrible mental, emotional and physical pain. I guess that qualifies as the “better place” to which people often allude. I am busy trying to make the here and now a “better place”. I don’t think we should have to die to reach it.
Jan - May 1, 2020 12:16 pm
You may not know what to say, Sean, but what you wrote was perfect. What a blessing to view death in a comforting, peaceful, loving way. I believe in a loving God and that gives me comfort. Your words, ideas and descriptions bring comfort and peace as well. Thank you.
Dee Thompson - May 1, 2020 12:19 pm
Great column. I never really believed in an afterlife until my dad died in 1996. Then I just knew he was out of pain and in a better place. I recently read a wonderful book about an NDE, Dying to be Me, by Anita Moorjani. She describes death as beautiful and peaceful. Ever since I read it I have become much more comfortable with the idea of death. It’s simply a doorway. What lies on the other side is pure, unconditional love. It’s life that is hard, not death.
Karen Irby - May 1, 2020 12:40 pm
Sean, you never cease to amaze me! I’ll be keeping this column so I can read it whenever life overwhelms me. I strive daily against many things, and a gentle reminder of what’s to come is ALWAYS welcome. God bless and protect you and your family, and comfort those who have lost loved ones…
Margie from Toronto - May 1, 2020 12:41 pm
What a wonderful way of putting it. Thank you
Kate Medina Writes - May 1, 2020 12:42 pm
I once heard a pastor pose the idea regarding Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead… We know that Jesus wept for his friend, but what if we’ve misunderstood the tears? Could it be that Jesus wept because He knew that He must bring Lazarus back to this broken world and steal him away from heaven for just a little longer? I’m certainly not saying this is true, but I do agree – our human understanding of death is most likely very limited and possibly backwards altogether. Thanks for your writing Sean…it is humble and brilliant, heartfelt and most needed.
Janie F. - May 1, 2020 1:15 pm
Sean I saw an interview on tv once when a woman who had been attacked with a knife and stabbed repeatedly was asked what it felt like. She said it felt like God took her out of her body during the attack and she didn’t feel anything. I thought well maybe that happens to people who are victims of violent crime. And then today I read your response to this grieving daughter. What if you are right? We really don’t know but I was with my daddy when he passed and I’ll never forget the way his face relaxed in such a peaceful way. It was almost as if I could see the pain leave and the peace take it’s place. I love this post. Thank you!
Rhonda Williams - May 1, 2020 1:18 pm
Sean, your reply to Pam was not only POWERFULLY ENCOURAGING but INSPIRED! You have been blessed and entrusted with tremendous gifts. Not only are you able to communicate with words on a very personal level, you have an uncanny insight of the suffering deep within the soul of others. The best part is that YOU CARE SO VERY MUCH!! It is obvious that you pour so much of your life into this work. I firmly believe that the Lord has a plan for each of us. It seems that you are working every day to fulfill yours! Many Thanks!
Ala Red Clay Girl - May 1, 2020 1:19 pm
I’ve read several books on NDE, and all the people’s experiences were similar in that they felt complete peace and love; none of them wanted to return to this life. BTW, today’s column is appropriate for me since it’s the anniversary of my daddy’s death.
Teresa Tindle - May 1, 2020 1:27 pm
Written from your heart.
Mary - May 1, 2020 1:28 pm
Thank you for those beautiful words. I don’t fear dear and long for the time I will rest in my Shepherd’s arms. He is with us always.
Linda Broyles - May 1, 2020 1:38 pm
Wonderfully written and so comforting. Thank you.
Charles Mathers - May 1, 2020 1:45 pm
You are a good man, Sean! Like the Dalai Llama says, “do good to others. If you can’t do good, at least do no harm.” Just remember, the world is full of very educated people that do a lot of harm. Really wise people like you do good. Thank you!❤️
Dianne - May 1, 2020 1:55 pm
This man’s NDE is a true encouragement to those who don’t believe there is something better after we leave this world. I do believe and do know where I am going when I leave this world, and I hope others will come to believe and know this after reading your story today. Sometimes saying “I’m sorry” is just what we need to hear. Thank you, Sean.
Peggy Thompson - May 1, 2020 2:03 pm
That beautiful glorious warm moment when your leave this world is not what ever comes next! It is Heaven & our Jesus Christ waiting for you! I pray you know him or will before you leave this beautiful life he gave you! Beautiful story !
Ann Pincelli - May 1, 2020 2:04 pm
Becki McCallum - May 1, 2020 2:08 pm
This is one of your best posts ever Sean. Thank you
Margaret Angell - May 1, 2020 2:13 pm
Sean, please don’t ever say again “I don’t know what to say” because you said it all and you said it beautifully.
Robert Chiles - May 1, 2020 2:17 pm
There’s a great book called “I know just how you feel” that talks about the stupid things people say around death and grieving. The author goes through about 50 really dumb phrases and explains why they don’t work. Then on the facing page she suggests a more helpful response. Your post today is brilliant. It’s some of the best and most nuanced theology ever- so much better than the response of most clergy.
sandra gartman - May 1, 2020 3:57 pm
Don’t let ANYONE tell you it gets better, it doesn’t. It still takes your breath away when you realize that person is gone,
day after day, wk after wk, yr after yr. There is a hole NOTHING can fill.
Rhea Wynn - May 1, 2020 4:14 pm
Thank you so much for today’s column. I read your columns every day. Sometimes, I laugh; sometimes, I cry. Sometimes, I just sit and think – what in the world is he trying to say. Today, I get it. I lost my sister to cancer two years ago – she was not scared of death, she was scared of the process of dying. She knew she was going to be with her Lord, but she was afraid of what it would be like to get there. We were beside her when she passed. It was the most beautiful, heart-rending, loving, soul shattering, peaceful moment in my life. I love the imagery you quoted from the man who experienced the NDE. After being with my sister, I can feel that feeling.
Patricia Gibson - May 1, 2020 4:17 pm
Very good one!!!
Linda Moon - May 1, 2020 4:29 pm
My daddy was the light of my life. He died when I was 18. I was inconsolable at the funeral. The preacher told me, “Don’t cry, honey. That’s just his body.” The preacher obviously thought I was very stupid not to notice the obvious: my daddy’s dead body lying there in a big casket. I said some choice words back to that ‘preacher’ that I won’t repeat here. So I say … cry, cuss, yell if necessary when those lights go out. John Wayne ALWAYS said words over departed ones. But we’re not him nor screenwriters, so silent hugs speak well for me….the kind of hugs you often give, Sean. And these written words you sent us today are very consolable for me, too.
Christina - May 1, 2020 4:30 pm
Sean, I have to say I’m so sorry for the way your daddy left the world, and the deep impact that left you. There are no words anybody says that could ever take that feeling away. But life is complicated, right? At times we might feel deep grief and gratitude, horror and peace, anger and love at the same time. May the way your daddy emphasized his “I love you” always ring louder in your heart!
Kathie Tharpe - May 1, 2020 4:53 pm
No Sean, you know exactly what to say to make us think differently and more hopefully about death. When my father passed away at 89, my sister was sitting by his bed. She felt a breeze, looked up, and saw him standing in the room as a young man – it was the most comforting experience!
Susan Anderson - May 1, 2020 5:04 pm
Very well said, Sean.
MermaidGrammy - May 1, 2020 5:23 pm
Beautiful. Just. Absolutely. Beautiful. Death is just a passage. Babies resist leaving the warm soft womb to come into the cold, bright world where they seldom feel that safe again. Death is the same. We resist until we see it’s actually so much better there. The grass really IS greener
Barbara Pope - May 1, 2020 5:33 pm
Great message!–inspiring and uplifting.
Tell your mama I understand completely about Paul Newman.
Dean Knuth - May 1, 2020 6:19 pm
Well done ! And if it helps you or others, consider the way I’ve heard a few people refer to the death of a loved one. Not “lost”, or “passed”, but a phrase that holds a promise for all of us: “They’ve gone on ahead”.
Grant Burris - May 1, 2020 7:39 pm
Extremely well done, Sean. I wish I had more profound compliments for you.
Linda - May 1, 2020 7:55 pm
catladymac - May 1, 2020 8:10 pm
“Think of it like they got on a ship, and as the ship sails away you say “There they go” But on the other side there are people cheering “Here they come .”
Becky Souders - May 1, 2020 10:17 pm
When my husband of 44 years died, I appreciated whatever words were spoken to me.
The one comment that gave me the most comfort: “Peace.”
Your words give comfort, Sean. Every day.
Tammy S. - May 1, 2020 11:23 pm
Wow, such a beautifully written piece. Absolutely love the visual, descriptive of what for some is so hard and scary to imagine. It was calming to read.
And Pam, I really am so very sorry.
Big, tight hugs to you!! ❤️
Rebecca J Cotney - May 1, 2020 11:26 pm
Beautiful Sean absolutely beautiful. Peace & love.
Nathan Fide - May 1, 2020 11:31 pm
Thank you for your words. That is really what people what to do when they loose a love one; talk about it with someone, but unfortunately, you hear things like there in a better om place and change the subject. I know most people are sincere, but they don’t understand.
Linda Moon - May 1, 2020 11:57 pm
P.S. Earlier today, Sean, you got me thinking about people from the past. And that led me to singing The Hallelujah Hymn. My mother died 35 years after my father died. I was young when he died, and I’ve grieved many deaths in my family since then. I’m adding this Post Script because I’m a born questioner. I had lots of questions for the preacher and God when my daddy died, so my first comment probably reflected that. I held my mother’s body ’til the cold set in, and then they took her away. But Alzheimers had already taken her long before then. As she died, her beauty slowly returned. She was at peace, and so was I. Four years later, a self-inflicted death occurred in our family. Peace was not found for a long time and still goes away sometimes. And on Good Friday this year, a beautiful young relative was gone in the blink of an eye because of a distracted driver. I still question and grieve hard and don’t always agree with the preachers. I hope I’ve learned something about death in all these years. I think, and probably KNOW, it is The Hallelujah Hymn…..the real One, the real Him….not just Leonard Cohen’s song.
Chasity Davis Ritter - May 2, 2020 3:33 am
Oh Sean… this one you could have written word for word for me except one c word would have been different… trade COVID for cancer. I know sometimes you write that some people have said you mention your Dad too much. Maybe I comment about mine too much but it feels so good to read what you write and to let you know it helps me deal with losing my Dad too. Next month will be his second birthday in heaven and what you said about “maybe your father’s death was with such dignity and splendor when he arrived in heaven that he wishes he could come back for one moment to tell his little girl it’s gonna be alright” (sorry if I paraphrased at all). That got me right in the feels. I know that’s what happened when my Dad passed. Yes there are moments when I miss him so bad I can’t breathe still. And there are moments when I find that penny in an unexpected place and I just smile and look up and say thanks Dad. The actual moment of letting him go didn’t hurt at all. I knew right where he was headed. I knew he had his peace and his healing and he’d never want to come back except just for that one second to say I love you and it’s ok now. But it doesn’t stop it from sucking. It doesn’t stop it from sucking at all when I wish he was still here. But one day I’ll have that Glorious passing over of my own and my Daddy will be waiting there with open arms and a big big smile. And it’ll be ok and it won’t suck anymore.
Brenda - May 2, 2020 10:14 am
Excellent post Sean. You have a wonderful way with words from your heart that is very soothing and calming to people that many others could not even begin to achieve. For me, when there are no words the best thing is a hug of love. In this post your hug love was well done Sean 🤗
Hollie - May 3, 2020 4:40 am
Unfortunately, any death SUCKS hard core. My best friend aka Daddy has been gone 20 years, 5 months and 3 days. It’s not any easier than the day it happened. It’s just easier to breathe in and out now.
Sean, your story does make it easier. Makes my heart smile.
Keith - May 3, 2020 7:40 pm
That was a moving piece of writing. I am bothered by one thing and I hope I am wrong: you are the child of someone who committed suicide, and statistically more likely, therefore, to repeat that act. What you wrote had a subtle element of welcoming death in a manner of someone who had considered taking their own life. Forgive me for saying that, and, again I hope I am wrong.
turtlekid - May 4, 2020 12:57 am
Your words are almost spiritual in their comfort. God has gifted you with words, and your words bless us all.
Susan Thornton - May 4, 2020 2:18 am
I’ve lost two siblings. I can’t tell you how much I hate hearing “I’m sorry”. I had only one person through all that both times who said “I’ve been thinking so much about you.” I hugged her harder than anyone and she was more of an acquaintance than a close friend or family. We’re all just too programed and that’s sad
Marcie Emory - May 5, 2020 12:34 pm
This came to me 2 days before my father went home, where I have no doubt my husband greeted him with love. Thank you for comforting us during this difficult time. I love you.
Gale Smith - June 10, 2020 9:10 pm
In the end, only kindness matters. I have been in situations several time where I could have died. I am still here, so there must be something left for me to do. I do not fear death. I fear disability far more. I believe death will be a final adventure.
Aunt Si or Martha Black - June 10, 2020 10:11 pm
What to say? Your mother’s words were completely honest & true……..
“This Sucks!” That’s it completely, simply, honestly, truthfully. We need to admit it. Sorry & regrets are true too, but as they say, “sorry don’t fix it”. It’s compassionately said & intended but just admit, it sucks & it always will, but those of us that remain, know that & we learn along the way to bear it better and continue……..
Norma - June 10, 2020 10:22 pm
My mother passed 3 days ago and I can only hope that she had that comforting passing described. Thank you for sharing!