Last month, Andrea Jaime (NHS ’17) died just weeks after beginning her sophomore year at Georgetown. A few hours after she died at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, students, faculty and staff gathered in Dahlgren Quadrangle for a prayer service of remembrance. We tried to fashion a message of comfort, though words seemed inadequate when compared to the loss of one so young. Presence was enough. The familiar bells of Healy rung, offering the comfort of the familiar on a day so strange.
Death relativizes everything. What seems so important becomes less so. What is missing becomes glaringly obvious. In the “Spiritual Exercises,” St. Ignatius advises those making an important decision to imagine themselves on their deathbed, and from that vantage point, to ask what decision they would have liked to have made now. Death gives immediate and sometimes jarring perspective.
The privilege of youth is not to worry about death, which marks the years as one gets older. Thus, when a friend dies in college, the impact can be great. Not only do we deal with the loss of someone we love, but we also face head on our own mortality. We are tempted to run from this reality, trying to recapture the cloak of immortality that surrounds youth. We know death happens, but we try to put it out of our minds. We sanitize death as best we can. But then death hits close to home, and we cannot run from it.
Thus the invitation and the challenge: stay still. The reality of our living is that living things die. While we should not wallow in this fact, getting stuck in deep sadness or fear-filled inertia, we do well to acknowledge our mortality as a truth of our existence. Though this is a hard truth, reckoning with it can be liberating. We become more grateful for the life we have and all the people in it. Facing a horizon of limit, we realize that our choices matter because they are not unlimited. We become more intentional about how we live, appreciating that every moment is a gift and that some things are more important than others.
This perspective, which realigns our priorities, is not meant to explain away grief. When someone dies, we need to grieve. We must feel the loss to deal with it. We each grieve differently, and grief knows no timetable. Thus, it is helpful to talk to someone when we grieve. While grief can be a very lonely thing, sharing it helps to alleviate the pain. When death is sudden or the result of tragedy or injustice, healthy grieving can impel us to sow what is life-giving in a world that knows too much death-dealing.
We aspire to protect the innocent and vulnerable, work for peace and cure illnesses. Doing something constructive, as we have seen on this campus after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., is helpful as we grieve a loss, even of someone we did not know personally.
At Andrea’s memorial service, we leaned on the familiar prayers of the Jewish and Christian traditions in which Andrea was raised. Such words and rituals are the product of centuries of reflection on the reality of life and death. They also point to a hope that springs eternal. In the Christian tradition, death and suffering do not have the last word — life does. There is life after life, for God wastes nothing and redeems even the most painful loss.
When my father died, a friend wrote to me words that continue to console. “In the love of God that binds heaven and earth, your father loves you still, and you can still love your father.” Consoling words indeed, but I still miss him very much, at the most unexpected times. Grief and hope are siblings, more than rivals.
Hope is a gift, but we need to choose to hang on to it. We can offer hope to others by words, witness or by our faithful presence. Hope is very persistent and contagious. A wise character in the movie “The Shawshank Redemption” remarked, “Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of good things. And no good thing ever dies.”
As the sun set and night surrounded us at Andrea’s memorial service, the lights from within Dahlgren Chapel grew brighter. Through the door of the chapel, the light reached out into the quad, and the glorious stained glass window above glowed brilliant in color, reminding us that indeed, no good thing ever dies.