Surprised by Death
Reflections on prolonged trials
Yesterday began like any other day.
And then my puppy died.
One moment I was gardening with my children on a hot, beautiful summer’s day in our front yard while my puppy played in the sprinkler—his deepest passion in life.
The next moment, he lay lifeless on our back patio, never to frolic in the sprinkler again.
Though it was probably only mere seconds that I denied and overlooked the possibility of my dog’s death, I realized how sheltered I was from death by how long it took me to realize that he was actually gone.
Surely, he’ll jump up any moment, I insisted optimistically—for both my sake and my two-year-old son’s, who was standing by my side, looking at our cherished puppy’s lifeless body.
Dezzy was Percival’s first and best friend.
When Dezzy didn’t respond, I first called my husband—“I think Dezzy has died.”
Next, our vet.
“Did he drown himself in the sprinkler?” I asked her urgently. “Is there any way we can resuscitate?”
“It’s probably heatstroke,” she replied solemnly. An autopsy confirmed her suspicions.
On prolonged trials
When we encounter death, trials, and suffering, we often find ourselves unprepared. We’re surprised by them. We assume that they are the exception, not the rule. We think that they are some sort of cosmic punishment or a message that we’re doing something wrong—a sign that we should change our ways.
The last several months, since March 2022, have been some of my most trying.
I wrote about them in an April Civic Renaissance post titled, “On the proper use of suffering,” which you can find here:
Little did I know that the travails upon which I was then reflecting would be only the beginning.
This has been a season of prolonged trials for me, and I’ve found comfort in the writings of
François Fénelon, whom we explored in Civic Renaissance, here:
His insights on prolonged trials and suffering have been a source of great comfort. I encourage you to read him in his own words, here:
Fénelon says that we rebel against prolonged trials because of self-love—and destroying self-love is the very reason that God sends trials upon us in the first place.
As long as we cling to self, the trials have not done what they’re supposed to do.
Fénelon’s musings, reminiscent of insights from Buddha, Socrates, and many other wise thinkers, says suffering in life derives from over-attachment to the world, and especially to self.
“God orders a series of events that detach us gradually, first from the world and finally from the self. The operation is painful, but our corruption makes it needful. If the flesh were healthy, the surgeon would not need to probe it. He uses the knife only in proportion to the depth of the wound and the extent of proud flesh. If we feel his operation too keenly, it is because the disease is active. Is it cruelty that makes the surgeon probe us to the quick? No, far otherwise—it is skill and kindness; he would do the same with his only child.”
Fénelon says that God allows us to suffer only for our betterment and correction. He cuts us to the quick so that he may heal the ulcers of our spiritual being.
“He must tear from us what we love wrongly, unreasonably, or excessively, the thing that hinders his love. In so doing, he causes us to cry out like a child from whom one takes away a knife with which it could injure or kill itself. We cry loudly in our despair, and murmur against God, just as the petulant child murmurs against its mother. But he lets us cry, and saves us nevertheless!”
I’ve had many of the things I love and take for granted in life ripped from me in recent months—safe and comfortable shelter, my car, and most recently, my beloved puppy, Dezzy—named for Desiderius Erasmus, my favorite renaissance thinker and philosopher.
In April, we moved into a home that has thrown one problem after another at us. No running water one day. No air conditioning the next.
Every morning, I’d wake up prepared for a fresh crisis to manage in order to keep my family healthy and safe.
Our home has turned into a full-time job of restoration and management—a job that I didn’t know I was signing up for or asking for—on top of my vocation as a writer, and in addition to my most important calling: being a mother to two wonderful children.
This past Friday, the first day that I had the emotional or physical energy to entertain, we had a few friends over for a soft housewarming. Naturally, that turned out to be the day of our greatest domestic disaster yet.
The heavens opened. Biblical-level rains and floods showered down onto our second floor—and seeped down onto our first.
We had our renaissance-handyman running up and down the stairs trying to stop the water as our guests enjoyed cocktails. The world was falling apart around us, yet we endured. This has been our life since March—one household trial after the next.
And then, the week prior to our most recent indoor-waterfall crisis, I got into a car accident.
Our children were in the car. My car was totaled, but, most importantly, my children were completely fine. I endured only a minor injury to my non-writing hand.
My car was a write-off, and I lost dozens of hours navigating the process with insurance—as well as the headache of looking for a new car in what may be the worst time to buy a new car in history.
Now, on top of everything else, our precious puppy dog has left us.
The compounding effect of all these trials has been depleting, exhausting, debilitating, and perplexing.
“In our cowardice, we exaggerate all we suffer,” Fénelon writes. “Our pain may be severe, but we make it worse by shrinking under it. The real way to get relief is to give ourselves up heartily to God, to accept suffering, because God sends it to purify us and make us worthier of him.”
Feeling sorry for ourselves and reveling in self-pity is an expression of our self-love. We reveal that the work that suffering is meant to achieve in our lives is not done. In recent months, I’ve had my fair share of days in which I revel in a “woe is me” kind of attitude.
I pray that I can allow these recent bouts of adversity to help me love things in their proper proportion, to love them as I should. Since Dezzy died, and looking at this litney of travails, I’ve found myself wondering, fearfully, “What’s next? What else can be taken from me? My husband? My children? My life?”
I pray I learn the lesson of detachment from the world—of love, people, and things. I hope that I can allow this season to teach me to love the wonderful blessings in life with a healthy, proportionate love.
As Fénelon writes,
“[God] deprives us of the things we prize only because he wants to teach us to love them purely, truly, and properly, in order to enjoy them forever in his presence, and because he wants to do a hundred times better for us than we can ever desire for ourselves.”
Embracing the rawness of suffering and finding beauty in tragedy
As we are amid, and as we emerge from, crisis, we have a choice.
We can allow ourselves to be overcome by the challenge we face.
Or we can allow it to teach us, form us, and cultivate in us eyes and hearts to enjoy and appreciate the beauty in the world around us.
I know that this is possible, because I’ve experienced this firsthand.
These last few months have been the most difficult few months of my life but also the most beautiful, rich, full, and joy-filled.
This season has been difficult, but I’ve also challenged myself to see the rawness of this suffering as fertile ground to help me grow in introspection and grace for myself and others.
I’ve striven to embrace the rawness of my pain, as opposed to seeing it as something to cover up and destroy.
And I’ve seen that beautiful things can emerge from that raw, fertile ground.
As my heart and soul have been tenderized by trials, the beauty and goodness in my life have been amplified.
It has enabled me to appreciate the small things so much more—creating a garden with my son, embracing the privilege of caring for my daughter by feeding her breakfast, watching squirrels play in treetops, or the sparrows dance in the wind.
I’ve leaned into the rawness. I’ve felt it deeply instead of running from it. I’ve let it form, move, and change me.
The curse of human forgetfulness
It often takes a crisis to remind us to relish life’s small joys.
Too often, we let the things that annoy us in others define how we view them. It’s only after a crisis that things are put into their proper perspective.
I loved my dog, but he was also vexing at times. While he was with us, it was easy for me to focus on the things that he did that annoyed me. He dug up my herbs in my garden. He constantly peed on my white linen curtains. He would romp around outside in the mud and roll around on my white furniture. These and other quirks of his irritated me to no end. I sometimes found myself frustrated that my dog was taking away time and attention I would much rather have invested in my children or creative pursuits.
Now that he’s gone, those frustrations seem insignificant. All I can think of are his virtues. His endless loyalty. His unconditional love for us. His pure delight in being part of our family. The fact that he was a little vacuum cleaner, devouring the trail of crumbs that my children left in their wake. His passion for keeping us safe.
While we have loved ones, we forget the virtues and focus on the vices of others.
When they die, the reverse is true: the frailties fade in importance, and we’re better able to appreciate their wonderful attributes.
This causes us to feel the loss all the more acutely.
Why does it take loss for us to gain a healthy, balanced perspective?
Why do we appreciate people, animals, and things in our life only when they are gone?
Why does it take suffering to remind us of important lessons?
In trial after trial, I’ve asked God and myself, “What lesson am I failing to learn that allows bad things to keep happening over and over?”
Why are these struggles being hurled at me time and time again?
What have I done that merits this punishment?
These trials cause me to continually scour my life for ways to improve and for bad habits to expunge.
After each trial, I resolve to be a better person.
After my car accident, I was overcome with feelings of gratitude and grace that no harm came to my family. It could have been so much worse. For a few days, this gave me a new lease on life. I was more patient, gracious, and kind to others with whom I might have been short-tempered. I was filled with joy.
Unfortunately, this didn’t last.
It was only a short period of time after my car accident that I found entitlement and selfishness creeping their way back into my mind and interactions. I found a sharpness and impatience begin to cloud my temperament.
Why does it take crisis—brushes with death and suffering—to cause us to have more gratitude and grace toward ourselves and others?
Why is the outpouring of grace and gratitude after a crisis so fleeting?
I think that all of this can be answered by human forgetfulness.
How can we integrate gratitude and grace into our habits and minds all the time—without a crisis to remind us of their importance to the life well lived?
Embracing, not running from, the rawness
Tragedy shakes us from complacency. This can be healthy and beautiful for our soul.
But we are averse to negative emotions and experiences, and this aversion can prevent us from reaping the full benefits of trials in our lives.
The world tells us to run from negative feelings. I’ve found great beauty in leaning into them. You might, too.
What are some things that we do to avoid negative emotions?
There are the obvious ones, such as shopping, drinking, sex, and drugs.
But there are less obvious ones, of which we should remain mindful to avoid.
Take, for instance, blame and bitterness. These are as addictive as any physical substance or behavior. They help us distance responsibility ourselves from negative emotions by blaming others for bad things that happen in life.
Absolving ourself from responsibility by blaming others for bad things in life is heroin for the soul—just as addictive, and just as harmful.
We can choose to avoid these distractions and coping mechanisms. In leaning into the fertile ground that is the rawness of suffering, we can cultivate eyes and hearts for the beauty in the world around us.
What can we do amid prolonged trials?
1. Cultivate grace and beauty after and amid trial. Grace begets grace. Beauty begets beauty. We can allow dark times in our lives to help us bring grace, beauty, and light into the lives of others—to be tools of alleviating the suffering in our world instead of contributing to it. We can train our eyes to see the beauty in the world around us regardless of our circumstance.
2. Nurture a reverence for life in all its forms. During times of suffering, caring for others and nurturing life—humans, plants, and animals alike—can be restorative, therapeutic, and healing. During a small break between writing projects, I’ve gardened daily with my children. I’ve reflected on the fragility, beauty and resilience of life. Life is fragile and precious, Dezzy’s passing has reminded me. It is to be cherished and recognized for the gift that it is whenever possible.
[Sidenote: Gardening has caused me to reflect on whether the process of cultivating soil is the conquest or perfection of nature. The conquest of nature is how some, such as Machiavelli, define modernity. Yet, especially in the wake of my dog’s death by heat stroke, I’ve reflected on how nature is still conquering us.]
3. Train your eyes to see the beauty amid crisis and suffering. If you let them, your eras of greatest trial can be your eras of greatest joy, too.
4. Don’t go it alone. Reach out for help. There’s no glory in the martyrdom of suffering in silence and solitude.
One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Sir Francis Bacon on the power of friendship to help ease life’s burdens together. He wrote,
“A principal fruit of friendship is the ease and discharge of the fullness and swellings of the heart, which passions of all kinds do induce. We know diseases of stoppings and suffocations are the most dangerous in the body, and it is not much otherwise in the mind. You may take sarza to open the liver, steel to open the spleen, flowers of sulphur for the lungs, castoreum for the brain; but no receipt openeth the heart, but a true friend, to whom you may impart griefs, joys, fears, hopes, suspicions, counsels, and whatsoever lieth upon the heart to oppress it.”
In your time of need, reach out for help. People are more likely to respond positively than you might suspect.
5. Lean into the rawness. Suffering and joy are two sides of the same coin, both necessary to live and be fully alive. Both require vulnerability—which we avoid like the plague in our modern era. To dull to suffering is to dull to joy. I love this quote by C.S. Lewis about the consequences of protecting ourselves from suffering:
“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”
Protecting ourselves from hurt by not choosing not to love is a death knell for life and for the soul. To love is to risk losing and suffering. The answer is not to protect ourselves by not loving. The answer is to strive to cultivate healthy, balanced love for life’s blessings so that—God forbid— when and if we lose them, the loss does not destroy us.
Some questions for you to consider:
How have you dealt with adversity in your life?
Why are we as humans so forgetful of grace, beauty, and powerful lessons that suffering has caused us to learn?
Why do we appreciate blessings in our lives only after we no longer have them?
Do you find Fénelon’s ideas on the use and purpose of prolonged suffering helpful?
I’d love to hear any reflections or responses you have to these questions or others related to suffering. Please comment below.
Or write to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Recent months have proved challenging, but I don’t share my recent trials with you for your pity. I share them to encourage you in your own journey of life, which will invariably include some suffering, and in hopes that my strategies with suffering might help you better endure your difficult times.
I hope that my story of finding beauty and grace amid adversity can offer hope as you seek to do so, too.
Life is difficult. To suffer is the lot of the human condition. But we can choose how we respond to it, and we can also choose how we help those around us when they are in need.
Wherever you are in life, whatever trials come your way, I pray that you find comfort in the knowledge that suffering can serve a greater good in our own lives, in the lives of others, and in our broken, sad world.
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