I had a co-worker today who came to me in the verge of tears because she is losing a friend to dementia, and is having to accept charge of him, and his affairs, as his ability to care for himself slips away, and he slides from the vital life she shared with him, towards a death that promises to strip him of dignity, ability, and even sentience before the merciful embrace of Hel takes him to the mound, and his ancestors. While he yet owns his mind, at least for periods, he is taking pains to let those he loves know what he has provided for them with his passing. From failing hands, he offers a last gift to those he loves, before all power to aid those he cares about, or even recognize them, is stripped from him.
Out of love for the man, she strives to refuse his gifts. At the end, when all power, and even command of himself is lost, when life promises to strip from him everything a life of hard work has forged for him in body, mind, and material, he has the courage to accept death, and a terrifying ugly form of it, and not accept defeat. Facing the worst fate I can contemplate, he has chosen to not let that be his defeat, for death is the unbroken promise, the price of every life given. He has chosen the victory that he will stirve for, to give to those people that he would have been there for in life such gifts as will make a difference in their very real challenges ahead, as he would do, were his hands still strong flesh linked to cunning mind and loving heart. Hands will be forever still, mind will be lost long before the heart stops, but the love and cunning can both survive the grave, and aid those they love through the bequests they make when love and cunning were both his to command.
Death need not be loss, if through your death your gifts can bring aid and comfort to those you cherish. Death will bring your victory, unless your gifts are rejected. Only then will death equal defeat, only then can the last act of failing hands be made futile. Reject that gift, and you steal victory from the dead, let the dying eyes see only their final failure, that they go to the grave with helpless tears rather than the light of victory burning in their eyes.
There are a few things you can’t turn off when you have been a soldier, and when you are a priest. Oddly enough, the former is more important than the latter as far as understanding, but the latter is needed to explain to civilians the truths we hold about death, and victory.
Not everyone has people in their life that they love, whose presence becomes a pillar of your life, one of those emotional touchstones you hold as the bedrock of your world. These are the people you trust, the people who, even if you don’t see them for long periods, hold places in your memory that are central to your understanding of yourself. If there is no person like that in your life, you may stop reading, for nothing I say will affect you, and your passage through this life will be untroubled by the passing of others, even as you will be unblessed by their presence.
For those who have such bonds, those who have forged such friendships as will last a lifetime, hear this soldier’s truth; a lifetime is not forever. But it can be.
Havamal tell us (verse 78)
Cattle die, kinsmen die
You too will die
One thing alone will not die
The fame of a good man’s deeds
We all die. Those we love will die. Accept it, embrace it for the truth that it is, for accepting it makes life precious, and the time shared with those you value then becomes more precious by accepting that it is finite. Denial of a person’s death is acceptable when they are dead, as your unwillingness to deal with the loss hurts none but yourself. Denial that a person is going to die when they themselves have accepted it can hurt the ones we love. People are always going on about how the Vikings sought death in battle; hogwash. Our ancestors sought victory and wealth from battle, not death. Death happened, and they didn’t get worked up about avoiding death, any more than they got worked up about avoiding dawn or sunset; such things simply happen at the appointed hour, and there is no reason to waste energy crying about the fall of night, or the rise of the sun when you have so much else to do, and a finite amount of time to do it in.
Those who face the imminent possibility of their own death are left with their relationships, and their duty. If I am to die, have I honoured all of those who have been a gift and a blessing to me? A gift for a gift is our way, and when the grave is a very real and imminent possibility, the time to settle accounts has come. There will be those people who have been valuable to us in our lives, whose presence has been important to us. Death will come; there is nothing you can do about that, save dicker about the hour of the appointment, and even that is frequently beyond our power. Victory, now victory and death have an odd relationship. Victory does not equal life, nor failure death, unless you make it so.
Hamaval tells us (Verse 41)
Friends shall gladden each other with arms and garments,
As each for himself can see;
Gift-givers’ friendships are longest found,
If fair their fates may be.
Those who accept they will not be there to share their words, their laughter, their comradeship with you once they have passed understand that this loss is both theirs and yours. There is naught they can do about that, for we will all be initiates into the mysteries of death in our time. They can, however give you gifts from that which they have earned, a wealth that serves them now only as they may use it to serve those who remain. Their life is ending, but their duty is not, nor is their love.
Those who love them not, will take the wealth offered without a single care, in this case, those who deserve it least are most likely to accept it well. Those who love them best mistake accepting their final gifts as choosing their gold over their love, their goods over their lives. This is, honestly, self serving twaddle.
With deepest respect and love, honestly I want to slap the shit out of every single one of you who speaks this. They are not dying because you will take the collection of books you used to swap back and forth and spend hours arguing over. They are not dying because you accept the big screen TV you used to watch cheesy movies on and heckle. They are dying because everything that lives, dies.
DO NOT MAKE THEIR DEATH A FAILURE.
You do not have the moral right to do this, but you have the ability to do this. You have the ability to make your fear, your unwillingness to accept the death they CANNOT prevent, into an act that they will know is a failure, because you have turned what they are trying to make a victory, by seeking to give to those they leave behind gifts that will make them stronger, into a defeat.
If you, through your weakness, let them know that their death will cause you terrible pain, and that nothing they can give to you can possibly make up for what you are taking from them when you die, you are making their death an attack against you.
You have stolen the victory they tried to carve from their own death, and replaced it with the knowledge that they die a failure; their last act upon this earth inflicting terrible pain upon those they love.
With deepest respect and love, honestly I want to slap the shit out of every single one of you who speaks this. You do not have the right to make the death of another human being about you. This is about them. They are going to die, that is not in your power, or in theirs to prevent. They do not have to fail, that is in their power, and in yours. We accept many things from those we love when they pass. We accept the duties and burdens out of love, as it speaks in the poem Flanders Fields
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
We accept duty, but not gifts, we accept burdens, but not those things that will make those burdens easier to bear. We will let those who pass let us take up their struggle, but will somehow not let them give you a gift in return for that gift.
A gift for a gift is our way, because that is how healthy relationships are formed. World accepting religion is what we style ourselves; well death is a part of the world, as is the fact that the death of an individual does not change the sun coming up in the morning, the bills still needing to be paid, kids still needing to be fed, and the ten thousand demands of daily life for those that remain. If their hands cannot be there to aid anymore, the work of those hand can be; if you accept it.
The time for your loss is the funeral, and the grieving process that follows it. Funerals are not for the dead, they are for the living. Hel is the unbroken promise, the freedom from pain, from weakness, from disease and age. The dead are beyond need, and funerals are thus for the living, for those they left behind. It is meet now that tears be offered, that rage be offered that one you loved was taken from you, it is now that fears be spoken of what that loss will mean to each. This is right, and good, and part of the healing, even as the tears shed are offerings to the honoured dead. This is the time and place to begin, and such a beginning can enable you to remember them in life, and remember the gifts they gave to you by being in your life.
They dead are only lost if you permit them to be. Death cannot change a single word spoken, a single laugh shared, or take from you one single thing that they shared from you in life. All that they were, still exists, and will burn as bright in your memory as you dare to keep it.
Do not confuse accepting death of a loved one, with being OK with losing them. These are only connected if you are foolish enough to permit it. Soldiers live with death, we accept it as the cost of doing business. We get used to losing friends and family early, and get used to making sure our duties will get done if we are not going to be there to take care of it. Accept this truth from us, the giving of gifts is a sacred thing, as is the accepting of them. When you are offered a gift from failing hands, you accept it, and you make it clear that the gift will be valued.
I really don’t care what the gift is, even if it is utterly unneeded as a physical thing, the giving is a material expression of a relationship that is valued, a way of looking at the responsibilities you have in life, and your own pending death and saying “This you may not have, this you may not take from me, this I have the power to do for those I love”.
Death cannot take that victory, but you can throw it away. Do not. Love enough to accept the gifts as the honour they are, and give the gift in return of showing them that their victory is assured, that they have brightened their friends and families with this gift, that death can take from them only their life, not their victory.
When they have passed; come together to deal with your loss. While they are passing, accept from their hands their gifts, and allow them to take from this life one last victory, and bind their love to those lives that continue. Get this right, and the dead will never be lost to you. Get this right, and death will hold no power over you, or those you love. But don’t wait too long to learn it, because life gives us fewer chances than we would like, and wyrd weaves as it will. You do not get a second chance.