I think about death every day,” my friend texted.
I responded, “Me too.”
Neither of us was suicidal. We were talking about the impact of various losses in our lives. The thought of death is such an everyday part of my life that it doesn’t phase me. But still it felt good to have someone else acknowledge the same experience.
I think about death in physical ways. When my husband leaves for work, I almost always think about what could happen on his commute. I double check my kids’ car seat buckles and do everything I can to not stop in traffic on a bridge or under an overpass.
I think about death in spiritual ways. Often tears well up in my eyes when we sing about heaven in church. The thought of being free from sin and seeing the lovely face of Jesus (“Come Thou Fount”), and what it will mean to feast in the house of Zion with our hearts restored (“We Will Feast,” Sandra McCracken), is an overwhelming thought. Heaven is real and near to me because of my losses. I remember death—My own, my friends’, my neighbors’.
Have you ever seen a skull and crossbones on a tombstone? Does it strike you as morbid? It is certainly not the comforting picture of a willow or cherub we often see on grave markers. But its purpose is fulfilled even as we draw back in disgust. This symbol was a common motif for a time—on tombstones, death announcements, and funeral sermons. It announced to the observer, “Pay Attention: You Too Will Die. Maybe Soon.” The goal, of course, was that the mourners, or anyone who happened to see the memento mori skull on a tombstone, would remember their death and live accordingly in their remaining days. Death itself was reserved for the individual, but when one person died death entered the whole community.
Many of us have reeled at metaphorical skull and crossbones entering into our own communities this year, whether the near loss of loved ones or the shocking loss in more distant communities—the passing of people like Rachel Held Evans, Lee Dingle, and Rob Moll (who encouraged us to remember death in his wonderful book The Art of Dying). Each death brings with it its own reminder, like a memento mori symbol, to remember our own death. The community, even an online community, is brought into an experience of human mortality, and the recognition that life is temporary.
And it’s not just loss that reminds us of death’s intrusion. An expert I recently heard speak on trauma, Ed Welch, described it as “death entering into life.” Trauma is experiencing the death and decay caused by the fall in our daily lives. Each intrusion is a reminder that our world is far from perfect—a desperate distance from the kingdom of heaven.
In my life, the trauma experienced through repeated losses means that I remember death literally every day. Losing five peers during high-school was devastating—cancer, car accidents, and suicide. It means that death entered my life literally those formative years, and figuratively every year since as I worry about doctors appointments and driving and mental health. Miscarriages have forever changed the way I feel about fertility, pregnancy, and hospitals.
The trauma stemming from the losses in my life, then, do more than just remind me of the deaths that I have only experienced secondhand. Instead, they serve as continual reminders to remember my own death. Death, entering my life as a young teen, will continue its parade through my life in the form of sin and suffering and loss until the day when my flesh fails utterly.
But until then what am I to do with those intrusions?
How then shall we live?
One good place to look for an answer or model is in church history. St. Augustine was stung by these sorts of intrusions and reminders too—some before he believed and was willing to run to Christ. In his Confessions, he describes the loss of his friend at Thagaste in vivid and violent imagery. He says that his soul was left “tattered” and “bleeding.” When confronted with loss, his impulse was to run. This intrusion of death into his life led him to wander, literally and spiritually restless. Can you relate? I can. Work, social media, relationships, and destructive habits can all seem like attractive options when death enters our lives.
But Augustine would agree, I’m sure, with Psalm 90: that the wandering, purposeless ways of filling our time that are so tempting and natural when we are confronted with the transience of mortal life, are not the model we should follow. Instead the psalm, as scripture always does, offers a better way. Verse 12 says “So teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.”
After crying out for mercy and relief in verse 13 (“have pity on your servants!”), the psalmist asks for the joy of the Lord in his remaining days (“satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”). He asks to see God’s glory while he is still on earth (“Let your work be shown to your servants . . .”), and then finally, boldly asks twice for God to establish his work on earth—for his work on earth to not be in vain (“establish the work of our hands”). The wisdom gained by numbering his days caused first, awareness of the transience of his work on earth and second, importantly, the desire for God to extend the value of his life’s work beyond his own short days. He wants to finish his days not with wandering, but with direction and purpose. And he turns to God to do the work of sustaining and upholding his endeavors.
This is a great example to follow, isn’t it? It’s not easy, though. Sometimes, like Augustine says, the weight of loss—the weight of trying to carry our own souls, to use his words—feels crushing. But even so, I want my memories of death and its intrusions into my life to cause me to number my days. And I hope that its remembrance will propel me to spend the rest of like the psalmist: working hard and praising God. Augustine eventually found his rest in God. May we too rest in God—remembering that we are dust, and rejoicing in gladness all our days.
Cover image by Mark de Jong