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COVID-19 toll has many of us thinking about death

Recommended reading for these times from Dr. John Chowning, pastor, Saloma Baptist Church

By Pastor Paul Prather

Like many of you, COVID-19 has got me thinking a lot about death.

As U.S. fatalities from the coronavirus approached 700,000, higher than the toll of the 1918 flu pandemic, a reader sent me this note on social media:
"Perhaps you could write an article on dealing with death as we are surrounded with friends and family who are losing their lives to Covid. I would love to hear your wisdom and observations on this subject. We are all in a battle with this enemy called death."
I can't say I possess any wisdom about death, but here are a few observations:

- Everybody dies. Many of us go out of our way to avoid talking about death, or even thinking about it. But however much we skirt the issue, death is inevitable. Everything that's born dies -- those we love, those we hate and we ourselves. Our family, our pets, even the ants that break into our kitchen. From birth, we're all on a journey toward death. To me, it's healthier to face that and make peace with it.

- COVID-19 is a bad way to die. There's probably no good way to leave this world, but there are a few particularly bad ways, and the coronavirus ranks among them. Its victims die nearly alone, hooked to ventilators, lungs turned to glass, struggling for breath. That's not how I'd prefer to go or want anybody else to go. That's why I've taken my shots, wear my mask and keep my distance.

- Death can make us compassionate. In the early 1980s, I was a teaching assistant in the English department at the University of Kentucky. I'd handed the semester's first batch of graded essays back to my freshman students. A young man who hadn't done well asked to see me during office hours.

On a Friday afternoon, we sat at my desk for probably an hour. I tried to show him ways to improve his writing. I was struck by his eagerness to learn, his politeness and good humor. He left, and I thought, "What a nice kid." I wasn't much older than he was.

The next morning, I picked up the newspaper and read he'd been killed in a car wreck shortly after leaving my office. Stunned, I kept replaying our conversation in my head, hoping I'd been kind. It had never occurred to me during that tutoring session it might be one of the last things he did on Earth.

Ever since, I've tried to remember that any encounter I have with anyone might be our last. One of us could be gone before the day is out. It thus behooves me to err on the side of softness and generosity. When I fail to do so, I need to apologize quickly.

- To the extent it's practical, we should seek our bliss. There's an old saw to the effect that nobody ever said on her deathbed, "I wish I'd spent more time at the office." Of course, unless we're born to wealth or marry into it, we all have to work. But to the extent we're able, we should waste less of our precious lives striving after trinkets and riches -- a bigger house, a Lamborghini, another promotion -- and spend more time enjoying the gift of life. Focus on what enriches your soul rather than your portfolio: your kids, traveling or spiritual enlightenment.

- Grief is unpredictable. Grief affects each of us differently. When my dad passed away in 2012, I felt relief. He'd been ravaged by dementia. For a long while, I hardly missed him. Now? I think about him daily, often multiple times a day. I've found I mourn each lost loved one differently. Don't let anybody tell you what's normal or abnormal about your grief, and don't tell others how to grieve. Whatever we're feeling on a given day is normal.

- Dying isn't always the worst thing. In her old age, my Granny Prather, who was even more morbid than I am, used to say, "There are a lot of things worse than dying young." I've come to realize how right she was. It's not how long we live that matters, but how well. An untimely death may in fact have spared the departed from worse sorrows that could have come in the future.

- There's hope beyond the grave. My pal Jimmy Whitlock was in an automobile accident that left him a quadriplegic for 43 years. As I wrote in a column after he passed, Jimmy survived multiple medical emergencies during those four decades.

"I have outlived the nine lives of three cats," he told me.

He'd seen the other side, he liked to say, in a near-death experience shortly after his wreck and later in a vision he called a personal visit from Christ. He wasn't afraid of death. It was no big deal.

"I've been there," he'd tell folks. "Don't worry about it."

To him, death was joyful. I like to hope that's the way it's going to be for you and me, too, if we put our trust in God. And maybe for all of us regardless.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at .

This story was posted on 2021-10-10 20:58:44
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