November 7, 2023

From the Rector…

I was listening to the news last week and heard the television announcer say that Matthew Perry had “passed”. Apparently, he had been found in his hot tub and the initial cause of death was drowning. I was saddened by the news as I love Friends and I was also a little disconcerted by the language of “passed” and not “died”.

It seems like such a small thing—passed away versus died—but I think it has greater consequences than we realize. To pass is becoming more commonly associated with death and dying, but I always think of a test and a pass/fail context when I hear that language. I’ve taken many swimming tests in my life and passed them. Had I failed, I would have drowned. In essence, Matthew Perry failed not passed, as he drowned in his hot tub. The implications for this extend into how we think of life and death in broader terms. Life and death become a pass/fail examination. I wonder if we didn’t “pass” in life would that mean in failure we get to live forever.

We also associate passing with “passage” and that is more likely why the term is associated with death. We pass through life into death. It is a stage of our journey. We go from this life into the next. At our passing we release the bonds that have held us to our earthly existence and embrace our heavenly one. It is a lovely image that seems to softens the blow of death and helps us to embrace our death or the death of loved ones in language that is meant to soothe us.

Soothing language makes us feel better—especially when we utilize it in the context of another person’s loss. It can also be selfish. We find it uncomfortable to use the language of death especially around someone who is grieving but there is a lot of research out there that suggests this is exactly what people who are grieving need to hear. “Death” or “died” is preferrable to “passing” or even “loss” as it clearly defines what has happened. Sugar coating another person’s loss doesn’t make death less real, but it can reinforce feelings of denial and extend grief or even disrupt healthy grief patterns. That is not to suggest that we shouldn’t be thoughtful and compassionate in our tone and delivery; it is simply to suggest that expressing an open truth is preferable to trying to avoid the reality of what has happened.

Psychological reasons aside, there is also a theological reason to use the language of death. Jesus died on a cross. He didn’t pass. In the Eucharistic prayer we don’t say, “Christ has passed. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” We are very specific, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Nor do we say, “We remember his passing.” We say, “We remember his death.” Death is part of our language and belief about God. It is biblical language and liturgical language.

As Christians we are very intentional with the language of death when referring to the action of the cross. To shy away from this verbiage when speaking of others does a disservice to the faith. It is as if we are unworthy of death and in some way disconnects us from the same death that Jesus experiences. To speak of “death” and not “passing” is to use Christian language and make a claim on the power, or lack thereof, of death on the Christian. If we truly believe that death is eternal life, then to name it should not cause us discomfort but joy. If, however, death continues to hold our hearts in fear, then of course we avoid speaking of it—that is human nature.

“Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” (Albus Dumbledore) To feel discomfort or anxiety around the word “death” only encourages us and others to fear death. No one wants to die—at least not before they are ready to do so. Our denial or avoidance of the very real language of death does not help us as we struggle with what death is or how we might understand it in our own lives. Death seems a finality in the human, earthly world. It is a new beginning in the Godly, heavenly world. Our language around death doesn’t change that, but it can help us to embrace death with joy even amidst our grief.

Light and Life,