"Rest in everlasting peace, my friend."
The Bible is replete with narratives of death, from the murder of Cain to the martyrdom of the apostle James. With each death, so to speak, the history of Christian salvation has taken a different twist and turn, culminating in the very death of Christ upon the cross.
The death of Rachel, second wife to the Biblical patriarch Jacob, is among the first deaths recorded in the Scriptures. Jacob loved her at first sight, but their father Laban’s shrewdness caused him to marry the elder sister, Leah. But Jacob persisted, and soon, Rachel was given to him in marriage.
Leah bore Jacob sons who would later become fathers to the tribes of Israel. Rachel, on the other hand, was barren.
Until, as the Bible narrates, God remembered Rachel. Then she became pregnant with Joseph.
Then she gave birth to the youngest of the sons of Jacob, Benjamin.
Then she died.
Rachel’s story abruptly ended.
One could easily say how God was unfair to Jacob for losing too soon a woman he so dearly loved.
Or how God allowed Joseph and Benjamin to grow up without a mother.
Seeing the pain, suffering and hardship all around us in this time of the pandemic, more than once have I prayed, “Where are you, Lord?”
Why have you allowed this crisis to take away the lives of people we love?
Why have you caused difficulties to many families who have lost their homes and livelihoods?
Last week I found myself praying the same words again.
We lost a Rachel.
Rachel at 42 years was at the prime of her life. She was a capable chief of staff to the Majority Leader of the House of Representatives. She was a caring wife to Edmar and mother to Cheska and Kayden. She was, above all, a compassionate public servant.
More than a work colleague, she was a friend-turned-family to us. She was there to share my life’s greatest joys, and comforted me during my own difficulties. She shared with us not only her material possessions, but her friendship, time and attention. She opened her home to us, and made all of us part of her own family.
Then Tuesday morning last week, I got an unexpected call.
Rachel has died.
First, there was disbelief. I insisted that we wait for the doctors to make an official pronouncement.
Deep inside me, I was reminding myself, miracles do happen.
But no miracle came. In an hour or so, I got another call. She was pronounced dead.
Second, there came the grief. I felt so disoriented that I couldn’t even cry. It seemed that I ran out of tears too soon.
I took all the strength left in me, and drove to where I knew I should be—with Rachel’s “family” at the office.
While driving, I kept thinking of what needed to be done next, the funeral arrangements to be made, the adjustments that needed to be made at the office—and then I suddenly felt a deep sense of loss.
It finally dawned on me that Rachel was really gone.
Rachel was in many ways our fulcrum at the office. She was a kind soul with such a huge heart for others. Her ears were always ready to listen to the concerns of both friends and strangers and she always had a ready solution to everyone who came to her. She could instantaneously come up with a plan for every situation.
In the confusion of the 24 hours that followed, I became even more certain that the Rachel who knew would always take charge was no more.
The evening before, we just had a conference call with Rachel around. She was under quarantine for testing positive from COVID-19, but as her doctors would later confirm, she was very much on the way to recovery.
Then just hours later, the unexpected happened. She died of heart failure.
Rachel was not the first in my own circle of family and friends to be lost to this virus. In fact, since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 20 persons close to me have succumbed to the disease.
I never even had the chance to say my final goodbyes to most of them.
But Rachel’s passing made me see death face-to-face.
Her death made me realize the fragility of our own lives.
Rachel had come first, but at some point in the future, we too will have to leave this world.
In the musical, Les Misérables, Fantine sings to the dying Jean Valjean, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
With the death of a family or friend, there follows a rush of memories and emotions—of times spent together in the past, the grief of losing a significant someone and the pain of knowing that you will never see her again, all because of the love that we had for her in this life.
Many times in the days that followed, the words of Psalm 22 came to my mind, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
These were the words that came from the lips of a crucified Savior.
There is no doubt that these are words of lament and abandonment.
“Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.” (Psalm 22: 1a-2)
But surprisingly at the end, the psalmist continues, “Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.” (Psalm 22: 9-10)
What we thought to be a prayer of lament turned out to be a prayer of trust.
So when the dying Savior hung upon the cross, he cried out not a prayer of abandonment, but a psalm of trust.
That is what our lament ought to be— a grief that hopes for solace, a pain that pines for a cure, a brokenness that be made whole once more, and a death that gives way to the resurrection to a new life.
We who remain will have to continue to live in a world grappling with this crisis. We will continue to make sense of the suffering and pain around us, but we are confident that despite the many unknowns—the loss of people we love and the complexities caused by the situation as it is, we know that in our own lament is a prayer of trust, that with the eyes of faith, we will find the possibilities of a new hope emerging.
In the end, this has been both the easiest and the hardest reality of this pandemic—to live life in a way that reflects how we love others. For many, this pandemic has caused relationships to deepen or for new bonds to emerge or even to renew old friendships. It has taught us to connect our minds and hearts in ways where distance makes no difference. The same is true for the people who have left this world for the next. There is sadness in our sorrow, but there is hope knowing what true love really is—to see the face of God—and in Him the certainty of a love that lasts forever.
Rest in peace everlasting, Rachel. Until in God’s perfect time, we meet again.
“In Him, who rose from the dead, our hope of resurrection dawned. The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality. Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death, we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.”—the funeral liturgy.