Talking About Life and Death

     by Sally Matheny
Talking About Life and Death

     We were seventeen years old and looking forward to graduation when it happened.

     Our friendship began only a year and a half earlier. Jan's family had recently moved to North Carolina from Ohio. The school year had already begun. She was the new kid without friends. And she had cancer.

     Our Junior Civinettes club went to her house to welcome her to the neighborhood and introduce ourselves as her new friends. We were nervous about going because we had never met anyone our age with cancer. I knew my boyfriend’s mother had survived Hodgkin’s.  That’s what Jan had so I figured she'd be a survivor, too.

     Jan and I became good friends. We hung out at school and visited each other’s homes. We never talked about cancer or life or death. We didn’t talk about it when her sandy blonde hair began to fall out. She only asked if I’d help her brush off the loose hairs from her sweater.  I did and assured her she looked fine.

     We didn’t talk about life and death when she came to school one day wearing a wig and people began to whisper. And stare. I just walked alongside her.  

     We didn’t talk about life and death when she grew weaker. She only asked if I’d help carry her books.  I did, and when I couldn’t, I enlisted others to help.  Jan had many friends. She always smiled and made conversation easy for those who dared to come close to her. A teen with cancer is a difficult thing to understand. I tried not to think about it. Jan was fun to be with and I knew she would get well.

A teen with cancer is a difficult thing to understand.

     So, we didn't talk about life and death. Not when we had to stop and let her rest a lot when we played tennis, not when she missed school, not when I drove her to chemotherapy, not when she had to have a hysterectomy.

     I thought life and death were the things people talked about when they got old.

     Except Jan didn't grow old.

     She died.

     Then, I panicked. Because Jan and I had not talked about the deeper truths of life. As nice as she was, I didn’t know if my dear friend believed in Jesus Christ. And then, it was too late.

     Sure, I had considered talking to Jan before. But, I was afraid if I talked about such things, she would think I assumed she was going to die. We were a few short months away from graduation and Jan was as excited about it as I was. Despite her illness, she had worked hard and was slated to graduate with honors. She didn't talk about future plans for college, or work, and I didn't ask about them, or where she'd spend her eternity.

     My heart grieved the loss of my friend and ached because I had failed her. The burden became too great. Before the funeral, I talked to Jan’s mom. She assured me Jan was a Christian.

     Relief came, but not peace. I had failed my friend. I could have been more encouraging to her during her difficult journey. We could have talked about the hope we shared in Jesus Christ. Why had I not prayed with her instead of just for her? 

     I was given a bittersweet gift my senior year in high school—a glimpse of how quickly things pass— opportunities, friends, life. No one is guaranteed tomorrow. No one.

Life is fleeting.

     Granted I was just seventeen. Perhaps I was too hard on myself. But I sure wish I'd been braver and talked about important, life-changing things.

     It's not always easy, but it's vital we talk about the reality of death and the hope of eternal life.

Please share ways you've initiated a conversation with someone about their eternity.

What are some ways we can encourage our teens to courageously make the most of every opportunity?