Death has been in my thoughts. Our city is mourning two firefighters lost in the line of duty. We're showing thankfulness for their work of going into danger to protect the rest of us from it, and honoring the firefighters, police officers, people in the armed forces, and other public servants who we meet.
Service-related deaths are always too soon. Tragedy is what this is. Many are grieving the loss of these heroes whom most of us didn't know. May we treat each other tenderly and help one another.
Privates James Dickman and Stephen Machcinski of the Toledo Fire Department will likely receive deserved posthumous recognition for their heroism. I hope their families will take comfort from public expressions of thankfulness and honor. But I also expect the families would trade all of that to have their loved ones at home.
First responders so often do their jobs so well, we forget that danger is always near for them.
A nationally known musician, Pete Seeger, also died this week. He had a long life, was 94, and his death, while sad, comes with affirmation that he had the time to change the world in his way and then to appreciate some accolades for his work. It seems there's more pleasure for his life than grief for loss, with this an opportunity to listen again to his songs and read about the way he used music to bring people together by singing along.
Death is with us, in one life well-lived and two tragically cut short. Such different circumstances, but they have all met the same human end.
I also remember my father, who died on Feb. 2, 1966, and was about to turn 60. I was 8.
Awareness of death is a religious experience, knowing that these people were born, grew and learned and loved, did magnificent things, and now we've lost them. It's not a simple story of once here, now gone. Our human connection keeps them in our memories and with us on earth—as long as their names are spoken, they are remembered. Felix Adler, the founder of the Ethical Culture religious movement, said, "The dead are not dead if we have loved them truly. In our own lives we give them immortality."
People and religious faiths have different thoughts about what happens after a person dies; while Christians believe that Jesus was resurrected and some other religions have sacred stories about returning from death, we don't really know about “the other side.” But the feeling of having the spirits of our grandparents, parents, spouse, other family members, or dear friends watching over us gives great comfort, as does the hope that we might see them again.
I have been with the dead and the dying and their families as a hospital chaplain, and I have led a few funerals and memorial services as a minister. I've been closer to death than most of us care to be, and I have witnessed the mixture of love and loss that is grief. I honor the lives of the departed, have great respect for those left behind, and I hope those they loved will remember good and fun times and that the hurt will fade.
Grief never leaves completely. It's not something gotten over or dictated by a calendar. We continue to mourn, and grief seems to visit on its own schedule. When the time comes, we remove items of mourning, and the band over the firefighters' badge will be taken off. But that doesn't mean it's over—we just continue in the world, trying to move forward.
As Mr. Seeger sang in "Turn Turn Turn," based on a passage in Ecclesiastes, "To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven." That includes "a time to die" and "a time to mourn."
As many mourners say in prayer, “We remember them.”