There are some people who believe that Elton John’s lyrics about Norma Jean are correct — that the candle that is our life simply goes out. But in all my experiences with death, I’ve never heard anything like that. No one has ever said to me, “Kristie, I’m sorry to hear Craig’s candle went out.” But part of me wonders why not. Why do people say things like “He’s in a better place,” if candle-snuffing is more their belief system?
I have two theories about why people do this. First, people are terribly uncomfortable with death. And that’s interesting because death happens all the time, and it’s going to happen to you, to me, and to every single person we know. The summer between my second and third year of law school I worked at a DC firm. Then after I graduated, I joined that firm. The problem was that I wasn’t really the same person as I had been as a summer associate, because in that third year my dad died of a heart attack on a plane coming to see me. So that first day of being a real associate, they took me out to lunch. One fellow attorney asked with enthusiasm, “So how was your third year?” Since it was undeniably the worst year of my life, it was hard to come up with any kind of a pat answer. So I told him it was a hard year, that my dad had died. The attorney fumbled a few awkward words and never spoke to me again. But he is far from alone in his inability to grapple with death.
My husband is a critical care physician. He does less and less bedside medicine, but for years a large part of his job would be to talk with families about “end of life” issues. He was good at this because he would be honest with people, and even doctors have a very hard time doing this. They witness death in the ICU on a regular basis, but they still live in denial. I’m confident that Will’s compassion and willingness to be forthright were a comfort to many.
But there is a second reason people say nebulous things like, “he’s in a better place,” even when they are more aligned with candle-snuffing than Jesus. My theory is that they just don’t think. They don’t let their minds go there. I read recently somewhere (and unfortunately I don’t remember where) that freedom to think is our first freedom. I’ve been pondering that. You have the freedom to not think about death. You can walk away when someone is hurting. You can avoid hard conversations. You can even go outside and watch stars fall from the heaven, and choose not to be awed, not to let the wonder of God’s creation shake you. You can just not think about it, but we are what we think. So if you never go deep, if you never let yourself really grapple with life’s enormous questions, you get stuck on “a better place,” and nebulous, meaningless candle-snuffing.
But what happens if we use our freedom to think? What happens if we spend time really grappling with where we came from, why we are here, what explains evil, why we long for love and forgiveness and justice? We find that the best answers to all our deepest questions are found in Jesus.
But His promise is not of a nebulous “better place,” it’s eternity with Him. This life isn’t all there is. This is not the end. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me” (Matthew 19:14). None of those precious little children from Sandy Hook Elementary were old enough to reject God, but you probably are. I hope you acknowledge the longings of your heart, that you are willing to do the heavy mental lifting of searching for answers that make sense, and I hope in the end you are willing to accept the simple answer that Jesus gives.
He said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).