I recently watched ‘The Last Word’, which is a movie about a lady (Harriet, played by Shirley MacLaine) who is perceived as a control freak, realizes that no one likes her, and asks a writer (Anne, played by Amanda Seyfried) to write Harriet’s pre-obituary. The movie itself is predictable (you know that Anne, who is annoyed by the task at the beginning, ends up growing to love Harriet, and that something bad must happen to Harriet at the end in order for the whole plot line to be resolved).
It seems that, for some reason, the town I grew up in, and now live in, has experienced a plethora of young lives ended too soon, whether that is due to tragic car accidents, health related issues, accidental overdoses, allergic reactions, birth defects, concussions –and amidst the grief and loss, we always seek the answer to the questions, “Why were they taken too soon?”, “What was the purpose of their deaths?”, “How come God ended their stays on Earth?”.
(Spoiler alert): At the end of “The Last Word”, at Harriet’s funeral, Anne stands up and discusses how, even though everyone’s perceptions of Harriet is that she was controlling, bitchy, and narcissistic, based on the time Anne spent with Harriet, she realized that was actually Harriet’s way of caring for people–her high expectations were just a way of pushing people to their greatest potentials, because Harriet cared about them, and knew what they could be capable of (now, in my opinion, for this being a movie and Anne being a so-called writing prodigy, I expected the speech to be more eloquent than it actually was).
While this is a fictional movie, Anne’s speech does bring up a good point about shifting our focusing from trying to understand the death, to remembering the life. Perhaps when we are in the midst of grief and loss, and we are asking ourselves, “Why was he/she taken so early? What is your purpose, God/The Universe?”, we should be focusing our attentions on what purpose they served while they entertained their brief stay on Earth. Since the beginning of time, humans have been trying to understand morality and death, and as far as I know, while there are many theories, no one has ever pinned down a direct and accurate answer (unless you are a Scientologist and have officially spoken to the Aliens). Because, these posthumous questions, and trying to understand why death found its way to a loved on, are questions that we may never get the answers to–we may never get the answer to the timing, and why it had to be on the same date as our niece’s birthday, and in the same week that we lost our job; we may never get the answer to why they just happened to be driving down the same road as the drunk driver, and what would have happened if the light turned red one second before; we may never get the answer to why they were never meant to fulfill their lifelong dream of becoming a doctor.If we believe in a benevolent God, sometimes the only way we can kind of answer these questions is to just believe He has a plan greater than our own, and to trust the chessboard of life and death that He is constantly maneuvering.
A few years ago, the community lost a teenager in a car accident, and I remember the parents, at the funeral, sharing the story of how the teenager’s organs were donated and were able to save seven lives–and they saw, albeit the grief and loss they were experiencing–the purpose of their daughter’s death–they were able to understand the timing, the location, God’s maneuvering (it was at this funeral, based on their testimony, that I decided, even if I didn’t believe in a God, I did now). But, not all of us necessarily get this kind of clarification, and even in this case, a great amount of faith is required to answer the questions of understanding the isolated purpose of the accident–we don’t understand why it had to be the kid, who was a humanitarian and benevolently involved in the community, had good grades, and was on his way to Stanford on a scholarship; we don’t understand why it was a birth defect that not one doctor caught previously that potentially could have been prevented; we don’t understand why the accident was in an isolated area that, had someone arrived earlier, they potentially could have been saved–these are questions sometimes only faith and trust in God can resolve, but anyone in this position knows the acceptance of these as “answers” is not fully satisfying.
In “The Last Word”, while we can kind of assume Harriet’s congestive heart failure is metaphorical for her perceived callous and controlling personality, and we can seek answers to understanding her death because it is fictional, and fiction is planned out, the focus of the movie’s message is not on trying to understand the purpose of her death–the timing, the methods, the locations–but rather, the purpose of her life, and how her essence will outlive her physical presence–certainly questions that we can gather substantial, concrete, quantitative proof for (in this case, all we need to do is look for the color symbolism and music foreshadowing, sprinkled throughout the script). In our own lives, we can also certainly look for the clues to determine a person’s purpose. We could certainly see how someone was strategically placed on a sports team to win a state championship, and remind everyone that hard work (and not money) can overcome; we could definitely understand how someone was gifted with the ability to sing beautiful melodies, and was often called to be in situations to alleviate pain, or celebrate accomplishments with their voice; we could see how, being born with epilepsy, allowed them to be part of foundational brain research that will change the way we treat brain injuries.
So, when the time comes for the state champion, or the people-reader, or the brain informant to physically leave this Earth, while grief and loss is a life-altering, continuous process that we will never escape, and it would always be better to have them living among us, perhaps by focusing our questioning on discerning their purpose whilst on Earth, we can continue to allow our loved ones to live their essence past their physical presence.