The Other Side of Death

Thanksgiving has become a bittersweet holiday for my family. Three years ago today, my then 46-year old cousin died.

Bobby was a New york City firefighter. Described by those with whom he worked as “a fireman’s fireman, he took a shift from another firefighter who had been scheduled to work on the evening of November 23, 2008. Answering a call that evening, he led the first unit of firefighters into a two-story house in Staten Island where a fire had ignited in the attic. It wasn’t the kind of fire that usually takes lives, but this one did. A ceiling collapsed on my cousin, knocking off his mask and air supply as he battled the fire from the second floor of the house.

“Cousin” in some families doesn’t mean a whole lot. But in families like mine, where aunts and uncles are extra sets of parents, cousins – especially those you grow up side-by-side with – are more additional siblings than cousins. So along with my aunt (Bobby’s mother), his siblings, his wife and his children, the rest of us – cousins, aunts, uncles, all of us – continue to shed the tears of loss.

The death of a family member is hard enough when death hits an older person. But deaths like Bobby’s three years ago, and like that of my then-50-year old Uncle Mike on 9/11, hit us deeper because they are so contrary to our expectations and our sense of fairness. People shouldn’t die young. Children shouldn’t die before their parents do. Parents shouldn’t die while their children are young. And those I love shouldn’t die without my being able to say good-bye, and tell them once again how much I love them. Except – sometimes they do.

I don’t know how people without faith bear such losses because, for me, death is bearable because I know what is on the other side of death. The only thing that makes it possible for me to bear death is the certainty of resurrection. My confidence in the words Jesus spoke to Martha after the death of her beloved brother Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

I still feel sadness that Bobby – the younger cousin who i loved – is no longer in our midst. But I know that he – along with Michael, my dad and all of the rest of those who have died – live with Christ.