A Death at Christmas

On the day of my daughter’s 15th birthday I stood in the cold in the local churchyard with her, and well more than a hundred others, and waited for the body of her best friend’s father to arrive.

A very private man, I had met him only once, and didn’t know him at all.  Despite his private nature the crowd of people there was testament to the impact he had on many lives.  We were there to offer our support and consolation to his family, and to say goodbye to a brother, husband, father, co-worker and friend.  While we waited there, I thought that while it may not be obvious to us as we travel through our lives, the decisions we make have lasting consequences, and those consequences live beyond us.

We all suffer loss in our lives.  It is the nature of the human condition that we are destined to have spans that are shorter than most of us would like, and this man’s life was cut very short.  He left behind a wife and three teenage children.  He died of cancer on Christmas Day, which seemed to me doubly cruel – a day that was always celebrated  in their house would become a day of sorrowful memories.  My daughter’s friend always loved Christmas – she would get my daughter to dress up in Christmas jumpers for Hallowe’en, rather than any of the more traditional outfits.  I can only imagine that future Christmases will be very different in their house.

During the funeral ceremony, my mind kept drawing parallels between their lives and ours – my wife and I have three children, and it could just as easily have been me in the coffin.  My father died young, and was also a father of three (I’ve written about the consequences of one of his decisions here).  We all have these thoughts during funerals, I’m sure.  I’ve been to quite a few funerals over the years, and as I get older they are becoming more frequent than any other type of extended family get-together.  Most of the recent funerals have been for older relatives, which, while sad, don’t feel the same as those conducted for people who have gone “before their time”.

While I was thinking for what felt like the hundredth time how terribly sad it was for the family, one of their relatives stood up and read a reflection.  It was a simple poem, which I’ve subsequently found credited to a Cumbrian artist by the name of David Harkin.  I’m going to replicate it in its entirety because it turned my thought process around about the day.

You can shed tears that he is gone
Or you can smile because he has lived
You can close your eyes and pray that he will come back
Or you can open your eyes and see all that he has left
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see him
Or you can be full of the love that you shared
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday
Or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday
You can remember him and only that he is gone
Or you can cherish his memory and let it live on
You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back
Or you can do what he would want: smile, open your eyes, love and go on.

I’ve written before about stoicism, and the fact that I am someone who lives very much in the present.  The above resonated strongly with me, and made me feel very hopeful – the family are pragmatic and stoical, as my daughter has previously told me, and the poem echoes that approach to life.

We finished the service with laughter – the primary celebrant couldn’t remember a key fact about his concelebrant, and encouraged us to laugh at his failings.  The final messages from the funeral were not of despair or sadness, but of hope, and of light, laughter and life in the face of the reality of death.


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