I was on the phone with my mother the moment when my grandmother died. The two of them, along with my father, were together in the living room of the house where I grew up in Arkansas. My grandmother, having fallen and broken her hip a few weeks earlier, had been brought home, and for several days her death had seemed imminent. One afternoon, in accord with my daily habit, I called my mother to ask for an update. I kept my voice hushed, respectful. A few moments passed, and I heard my father, his voice muffled from across the room, say to my mother, “I think she’s going.”
Standing in my house in Pennsylvania, I heard her ask, incredulous and numb for an instant, “She is?” And then she blurted, “I don’t want to see it!” As I gripped the phone, I heard my mother scuffling, ready to leave the room, not wanting her final memory of my grandmother to be the sight of an agonized contortion or a blank, uncomprehending stare.
“She’s gone,” my father said indistinctly, barely audible to me, and my mother repeated her question, “She is?” and then exploded into a spasm of sobs, like a flock of geese thundering upward after the firing of a shotgun.
In the days afterward, I had a series of thoughts that I am ashamed to record—ashamed because they are so transparently judgmental and naïve. I found myself replaying the surreal moment when I happened to call my mother at the very time of my grandmother’s death, and what kept coming to mind was how unprepared, how destabilized and grieved, my mother seemed. Christians sometimes speak of a “good death,” in which family members are reassured by the tranquility of the one who is passing away, but that did not seem to apply in this case.
I thought of how differently my friend Ruth, who is the same age as my mother, had behaved when she lost her mother several months before my grandmother’s death. Ruth held her mother’s hand as she took her final breath. She sang hymns to her mother. She held hands with her relatives and encircled her mother’s bed. She whispered in her ear, “You can let go.” Ruth’s taking leave of her mother seemed, in the days following my grandmother’s passing, somehow more Christian, more full of serenity and confidence in the hope of the resurrection, than my mother’s darting from the room at the last minute. Wistfully, I wished that my mother could have found some of that same confidence for herself. I wondered if she would regret not standing beside her mother’s bed as she took her last breath. I grieved that she wouldn’t be able to retrieve that moment and inhabit it differently, with her fingers intertwined with my grandmother’s. It seemed a chaotic death, not a “good” one, at least not for my mother.
I know not to trust these thoughts, in part because every person’s experience is irreducibly unique, as grief counselors remind us. Mainly, though, I know not to put much stock in my mixed reaction to my mother’s grief because I know the story of how Jesus died.
In the days after my grandmother’s graveside funeral, I returned to a lecture given in Andover Chapel at Harvard University in 1955 by the then-famous Swiss New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann. Eventually published as a small book titled The Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?, Cullmann’s lecture opens by contrasting the deaths of Socrates and Jesus. “Plato shows us how Socrates goes to his death in complete peace and composure,” Cullmann notes. “The death of Socrates is a beautiful death. Nothing is seen here of death’s terror.”
The reason for Socrates’s serenity in the face of death, Cullmann proposes, is the Greek belief in the immortality of the soul. Since death frees the soul from the body, then death can be welcomed as a friend. We can attain a state of “acceptance,” as some counselors tell us, borrowing from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous typology of the multiple stages of dying. Such, apparently, was Socrates’s experience.
In sharp distinction from this portrait, for Cullmann, lies the stark horror of Jesus’ death. “In Gethsemane He knows that death stands before Him, just as Socrates expected death on his last day.” And yet the contrast between these two figures’ responses could not be greater. Whereas Socrates maintains his equilibrium, Jesus “trembles” and becomes distressed (Mark 14:33). “Jesus is so thoroughly human that He shares the natural fear of death,” says Cullmann. “Death for Him is not something divine: it is something dreadful.” It leads Jesus to offer up “loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). He utters the “cry of dereliction” from the cross (Mark 15:34), protesting death’s most pitiless feature—its insistence that each person must endure it alone, with no prospect of a reprieve or rescue. “Death in itself is not beautiful, not even the death of Jesus,” Cullmann concludes. We might well say about the four Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’s final hours what Rowan Williams once said in a slightly different context: these stories “are about difficulty, unexpected outcomes, silences, errors, about what is not readily accessible or readily understood.” That’s what death means, even for the Lord himself.
In the days immediately following my grandmother’s hip fracture, when she was still in the hospital, a chaplain visited my mother. She gently suggested that this, my grandmother’s final bend in the road toward death, was a time to be embraced. A time of gifts and opportunities. My mother, sleep-deprived and in no mood for liberal theology, shot back, “Paul calls death ‘the last enemy to be destroyed.’” The hospital chaplain stopped visiting after that.
It may be, in a few years (or weeks), that my mother will look back with regret and wish she had sought more consolations in the midst of her mother’s last days. She may wish she had been more like my friend Ruth, more ready to lean down and press her cheek against her mother’s and hold her hand for those last few breaths.
My mother can be sure of one thing, however. Her grief, her shrieks at that final expected and yet still horrible moment of loss, were echoed perfectly in the screams of her incarnate Lord. Jesus shared the human condition in its most ragged extremes, indwelling the fissures and irrationalities of the process of dying itself. He thereby hallowed not only the peaceful departures but also—perhaps especially—the ugly ones, the messy and untidy deaths, in which opportunities are lost and gifts go unrecognized. He sanctified those deaths, too. He came not only for the beautiful but for the harried, not only for the serene but for the frightened and the cowardly and the inconsolable. In a real way, he became the frightened and the inconsolable.
I am no longer as troubled as I was by my mother’s last moments with my grandmother. My hope, like Jesus’s, is in the God who raises the dead, who overcomes the pang of imperfect farewells with the promise of a new creation. My hope lies not in human perfectibility—my mother’s or anyone else’s ability to achieve the right kind of farewell—but in the God of Easter morning.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.