The Dead Cannot be Defined by Their Death

For those grieving the loss of a loved one, there is a chasm separating focusing on the death of someone and celebrating their life. Death is not something we seek and it is rarely pretty. For some it is proceeded by a harrowing death rattle, which is easily explained scientifically, but haunts those who hear it. For others their last moments can be that of pain and suffering, and those “last moments” might actually be days or weeks. For many of the grieving, it is difficult to move past the death into a celebration of their life. If we watch someone suffer, and in my case, my six-year-old son, the challenge is to acknowledge the suffering while celebrating the life.

Christ on the Cross with the Virgin, Mary Magdalene, and Saint John, by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Spanish, c. 1670, oil on copper
Christ on the Cross with the Virgin, Mary Magdalene,
and Saint John,
by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Spanish, c. 1670, oil on copperĀ 

Easter Sunday is certainly an apt time to remind ourselves that suffering unto death, no matter how severe, is only part of a person’s legacy. Mary watchs her son suffer one of the most painful deaths, a slow suffocation after he is beaten, whipped, and nailed to a cross. For three hours he hung on that cross while she, Mary Magdalene, other women, and John, the only disciple not to abandon him, watched him suffer and cry out. As Christians, we now give that suffering meaning since we realized he died for our sins, he was the ultimate sacrifice that was beyond the power of humanity to give so God gave it to us in his own son.

To be reminded of the sacrifice, Catholic and Orthodox Christians (as well as some Lutherans) use the crucifix as part of their worship. It is not to focus on Christ’s death, but his sacrifice for us. The crucifix even serves as a form of memento mori that I wrote about last week. The cross reminds us that we too will die and should live our lives with the purpose an acknowledgement of our death offers. But our faith is not built on Christ’s death, but his life. The life that he lived up to his death and even more importantly, his resurrection that shows the defeat of death.

COVID-19 map

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have lost over 100,000 people in the world and over 21,000 people in the United States. We mourn those losses and their families are suffering even more as our traditional ways of saying goodbye to our loved ones are turned upside down. These are not pleasant deaths and the separation will haunt the ones left behind for even longer.

But we must not allow a death to define a life because then we fail to honor the life that someone lives. Yes, for years these people will be recognized as dying in the 2020 pandemic, but their lives are worth more than that acknowledgment. This will take some time for families to process and there is no correct length of time to focus on the death as opposed to the life, but at some point, the life needs to outdistance the death.


In my own case, my son died from a deadly, painful cancer at the age of six. For nearly half of his life, he was in treatment for cancer, but he did not allow cancer to define his life. From his “happy” dance to his precious prayer of the Hail Mary to his bad jokes which made him laugh to his surprisingly strong hugs, he made a legacy of life. To focus only on his death is to rob him and us of what made his death such a tragedy. We should not forget his death and we can use it to remind us of our death, but it cannot be the focus. Death is not a legacy, it is a moment in time.

On Easter Sunday we celebrate the risen Christ who has left death behind, but not forgotten. His resurrection is only possible because of his death, which we remember for the sacrifice made, but we focus on his life and the new life he offers. As we mourn those we lose in our lives, let us remember to focus on what they offered us more than what we are missing. Their lives cannot be defined by their absence. Instead, let their lives be defined by what they offered.

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