I was awakened Sunday by a telephone call from a friend telling me news I never expected to hear: that my friend and former student had been killed, run over by an 18-wheeler while helping stranded motorists beside a highway. Before grief hit incredulity. I kept saying “What?” And in the hours since, I cry for a few minutes and then think, Wait? Did this really happen? It doesn’t seem real. I keep wondering, at least for a split second, whether I just misunderstood the news—that my friend is preparing, as he would any other Sunday morning, to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, that all of this is just some sort of mistake.
That’s a common reaction, I know. Those of us who’ve had to tell people about the deaths of loved ones have had the same reaction: “It can’t be! There must be some mistake!” And all of us who have lost loved ones know that this sense of unreality persists. For months after my grandmother died, I would find myself dialing her telephone number. A widow I know told me that—even years after losing her husband—she still rolls over in the morning expecting to find him there, only to be hit by the sight of his empty pillow and the harsh reminder that he’s gone.
Why is this?
Death Shouldn’t Be Real
It seems to me that the loss of those we love doesn’t feel real, first of all, because it shouldn’t be. As much as we tell ourselves that death is just a part of life, that human beings are just part of the same cycle as that of the rest of the earth, it just doesn’t ring true to us, at least not in the moments when we encounter it with our psyches instead of our theories. Losing a person is more than just the ever-changing whirl of our environment. And loving a person seems to be something that should be permanent. A person seems to be more than just a type of a generic whole. Each person seems to be unique and irreplaceable—a story that may rhyme in the lives of others but can never be retold in the same way.
The loss of those we love doesn’t feel real, first of all, because it shouldn’t be.
Some would say that this is “denial,” a denial of what’s certain for every one of us, and that this refusal to face facts is an anesthetic to keep us from grappling with the inevitability of death. Is that partially the case? Yes. Does it tell the whole story? No.
Jesus grieved over the death of a friend (John 11:35). Death is an enemy—in fact, it’s the “last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:21). Death comes to us, Scripture tells us, “through Adam” (Rom. 5:12). Something in us knows, though, that exile from one another—exile from the Tree of Life—is not as it was “from the beginning.” Sometimes people will say to those grieving, “Don’t be sad they’re gone; be happy for the years you had together.” There’s something true about that, of course. We should see the lives of those we love as gift, and we should not take them for granted. But, even so, something about that sentiment is false.
The sense of unreality at the loss of one we loved prompts us to “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). In this feeling of unreality we seem to recognize that this isn’t the way things were meant to be, that we’ve lost something—a communion with one another that cannot be broken because it’s centered around communion with God at the Tree of Life. But we’ve lost our way (Gen. 3:24).
Intuitions and Deeper Reality
There’s another reason the loss of loved ones seems unreal to us, and that’s because, in an important sense, it’s not real. I do not mean, of course, the heretical teaching that suffering and death are illusory. But we do confess, with all orthodox Christians through the centuries: “I believe in the communion of saints.” Referencing God’s identification as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”—even long after their deaths—Jesus observed: “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Mark 12:27). Jesus’s point here challenges our tendency to speak of those in Christ we’ve lost in the past tense. It’s not “I loved him” or “I loved her” but “I love . . .”
There’s another reason the loss of our loved ones seems unreal to us, and that’s because, in an important sense, it’s not real.
At the level of our deepest heart knowledge, feeling as though the death of a loved one in Christ is “not real” is not a denial of reality. It’s our intuition looking for a reality that’s deeper than what we can see or express. In the Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot famously wrote that humankind “cannot bear very much reality,” and that what we find are often momentary “hints and guesses” at a Reality just beyond our perception. The feeling that the death of a Christian we loved isn’t quite real points us to a Reality we were made to know—but that we cannot bear quite yet. It points us to a Reality where our loved one is, in fact, both living (more than we ever saw of life) and real (more real than our current shadowy existence).
One Day, Death Won’t Be Real
If you’ve lost someone, don’t let anyone tell you that you’ve lost sight of reality when you say, “It just doesn’t feel real to me yet.” Instead, let that remind you that one day it won’t be real, not real at all.
Maybe at that point of regathering in the light of glory we will ask ourselves—out of shocking joy, not shocking grief—Can this really be happening? Is this really real? Maybe we will then be told, by One who led us along with nail-pierced hands: “Oh, this is real—and it’s just the beginning.”
A GoFundMe page has been set up to relieve some of the financial burden for the family of John Powell, the friend and former student Russell Moore mentions in this article. The Houston-area church planter died in a tragic highway accident on July 18, 2020. He leaves behind a wife, four young kids, and the congregation he pastored.