Her sobbing grew to wailing as the preacher concluded his message. His final words signified the end. The ceremony was over and her son would never rise from the box that laid closed before her. She would not see him again. It was final. He was gone. Her screams were so loud and deep they shook my stomach. Though I didn’t know him well, I cried.
Last weekend, as I walked out of a funeral of a friend it occurred to me that the finality of death should not be lost on us. It is the transition from which we cannot return. No weeping, no wailing, no wishing can reverse it. It is undemocratic and it does not respond to our positions.
Maybe that’s why much of Western culture has made so little of it. We dare not discuss what death actually is and what comes after. We speak not of the darkness, the emptiness, nor the horror of the helplessness. Even our hospitals are made to look like hotels so that when we pass them we need not consider the pain that remains trapped in their walls.
We entertain ourselves with shows that refer vaguely to death but it is convenient. It functions as one of the many dramatic elements of the story. Our least favorite character is killed and we move on with a sense of relief — our favorites are still alive.
It is in the context of this culture that the “Black Lives Matter” movement is attempting to get its message across. The message regarding the importance of life is hard to accept when we are not familiar with the sting of death. When we know death as a distant thing or as something that comes to the aged after months of preparation, it is hard to sympathize with one who has experienced sudden loss. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that middle class America never deals with tragedy but it is infrequent and those who experience it often find themselves at the fringes of an unaccommodating culture. We are not given the tools to soberly consider death; we rarely grieve as a whole community.
It is the ignorance of the gravity of death that leads some of my white friends to overly sympathize with irresponsible officers. When they watch a video of a police shooting it is, to them, like another episode of Law and Order. Their brains are familiar with the roles. The man in the uniform is good, the one he shoots is a bad and minor character.
In real life though, the one who is shot is someone’s son or daughter. Her mother wails for her when she is gone; his mother wishes she had kept him over for dinner just a little longer. Maybe then she would not have been caught on the way home; if she hugged him one more time, maybe then he would not have been pulled over. The close friends weep in confusion.
It is to this reality that I speak. It is in this context that I cry out for justice. My pain is not based on my media consumption — I don’t even have cable — my expression is not because I have a deep political agenda. Every word I write, every thing I’ve said publicly comes from empathy for the grieving — it comes after imagining myself in their position. I think about the emptiness that would flood my stomach if I had gotten the same call about my brother or my man or my nephew. I consider the finality of it all and it is from this place that I implore the powers that be to find a different way.
So dear friends,
When you post pictures of police officers hugging black women and include caption about the media covering that instead of the murders of black people, it pains me. It pains me because it communicates your shallow and distant understanding of death. You’ve suggested that the media swap coverage of one trite thing for another.
But, my friend, death is no light and momentary matter — it is deep, dark, irreversible, and grave.