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February 4, 2015

The Strength to Survive

Las comadres by José Ortiz Echagüe

When we learn that someone has died, we first say that we regret their loss, but what we really want is to first ask how? How did he, she die? Was it an accident? Was it sudden? Were they ill?  Were they ill for long? These are some of the questions that come to mind for a natural death.

But, death doesn't feel natural. That's a large part of why we struggle with grief. Life feels natural, only life. Knowing that death ends the life we know means that death cannot feel natural to us. It can become less of a stranger, more familiar and more manageable. But not natural.

How much more unnatural, how utterly alien, death feels when it comes at the hands of a murderer, attacker, terrorist, or war criminal. I read once that fear is temporary, but horror is lasting. This is what families who lose loved ones in terrible, unjust, and evil ways must endure: horror. 
Parents Sasi and Saafia Al-Kasasbeh, the other family members, friends, and countrymen of Jordanian pilot Muath Al-Kasasbeh are left to face not only the unnatural loss of this young man, but also the horror at the knowledge of how his life was ended. As unnatural as death feels to us, we do know it as inevitable. Not so with this kind of--no other word for it--evil way in which his life was ended.

I do not know how human beings survive this penetrating mix of loss and horror. Every time I hear of losses like these--and there are far too many--I feel overwhelmed. And challenged. As I see these good people survive, hear their voices speak to the world through their indescribable grief, I am challenged to believe that the very strength that sustains them may be something akin to having a divine black hole within the soul. It holds you together as it tears you apart. To think that that strength could also be available to me frightens me to my core. I would rather collapse than endure the horror that requires this kind of strength in order for one to survive. Yet, I cannot know of this family, or others who have lost loved ones in ways of unjustifiable horror, and not acknowledge that terrible strength that has helped humans survive, and in acknowledging it, accept the startling, often shocking chiaroscuro that is life and death, life after death, and life beyond death. Acknowledging this, I ask G-d to be present in my life, our lives, the world. Be present and keep us in Thy presence. Be, God, at the center of that black hole of terrible strength. Amen.

Image description: The image at the beginning of this post is a photograph taken by José Oriz Echagüe. Echagüe was a photographer who lived in Spain from 1886 to 1980. The photo is a black and white print, printed on canvas to enhance the painterly qualities of the photo. Two women sit on either side of an arched entryway, facing each other. They wear long black skirts and have black fabric draped over their heads and shoulders. There faces do not appear in the photograph. They are as two dark sentinels. A gate inside the archway opens into a dark passage. The background is a soft grey, and the the women's dark-robed figures stand out starkly against the grey wall.

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