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  • Writer's pictureJim Donaher

Rites of Passage

In life, there are many times of transition. Last spring, I was able to watch a group of eighth graders, with whom I had been working, finish middle school and graduate to high school starting this fall.

I've always been emotional about these kinds of ending/beginning times, going back to my own high school and college graduations. I have not changed. As I watched my students saying goodbye to their younger selves, it made me emotional. Some of it is joy and some of it is sadness. For the ones I got to know best, I can anticipate both their future successes as well as things they might struggle with.

Being older now, I have been through many of life's transitions. I know some go smoothly and others are rough. We rarely remember the smooth ones, but the rough ones usually stick in our minds for a while.

From infant to toddler, to elementary school, to middle and high school, possibly college or to the military or to work. Single to married is a huge transition, as is no kids to kids. As a parent, you adopt your children's transitions, while still on track with your own.

Some transitions are voluntary and others not. Job and career changes are like this. Sometimes, marriages break, and we transition from married back to single. Depending on who initiates the break, it can be either voluntary or not.

As time has churned forward, we become more and more familiar with the ultimate transition at the end of life. Through faith and experience simply living life, we are impacted by death many times, some intense and close, others at a distance.

The first death I remember - vaguely - was John F. Kennedy. I was almost three years old and had no idea what a President was, or who he was. But I knew tears and sadness. And I had never noticed tears from my parents until the President was killed.

A few years later, in quick succession, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were murdered as well. Life magazine was a great source of information for a little kid trying to figure out these events. The pictures told much of the story.

In my teens, there was a smattering of losses, usually parents or grandparents of friends, and these were often sudden, or seemed so. There was even my basketball teammate in ninth grade, who died in a car accident during the summer. That was my first wake.

Living in an Irish-Catholic area, wakes were 'a thing.' Everyone went to pay their respects, and the appropriate behavior was modeled uniformly by the older folks in attendance. But that behavior, I came to realize, changed depending on who had passed away. Wakes for very old people were often happy affairs, celebrations of a life well-lived, complete with stories and even laughter.

The younger the deceased, the more difficult the wake. This was especially true with young people, such as my teammate, who was only fifteen.

Most of the wakes I attended were sedate, quiet, solemn affairs. While some had a feeling of relief for all involved, others were an exercise in maintaining composure. I learned later that there was sometimes drama related to inheritance or who did more for the deceased, but I was not alert to these things. It wasn't my business.

In one awful week in 2007, I attended two wakes and two funerals.

First, my dear friend from high school died suddenly from a brain aneurysm. This hit me hard since he was so close and so young. I cried at his funeral, something I've never done before.

The other was for the parents of a friend and colleague at work. The family was Haitian, and her parents went to Haiti, where they were building their retirement home. They were targeted by thieves, robbed, and murdered.

A few years later, my mother passed away and, for the first time, I was in the receiving line at a wake. It was mid-summer, so attendance was light but many of Mom's most ardent fans came to pay their respects. Though we were sad, we knew how much good she had done, and how many people loved her. We didn't need them to come to tell us that.

After my mother passed, my father was understandably bereft. He asked me one day, not expecting an answer, why he was still here. He had always expected to die before my mom, so he was not sure how to proceed. At the time, my faith was still emerging, but I managed to tell him that maybe God wasn't finished with him yet. That maybe he had more work to do.

He struggled with the idea that he had more to do at the age of 88, but God found him the perfect job. A few months before Mom passed, they had moved to an age-qualified community on the South Shore. They became friends with many older people, and they found they had a lot in common with many of them. What Dad learned after Mom passed was that many of them had lost spouses. These folks folded in around Dad like a warm blanket on a cold night. They encouraged him, listened to him, talked to him, and gave him a shoulder to cry on.

Dad was going through an involuntary transition from husband to widower. It was hard for him. But he was supported. And as time began to heal him, he provided support for others, whose grief and loss were more recent. He excelled at being a listener, advisor, encourager, and his shoulder had always been a good place to cry. I know, since he was my dad.

Largely due to the experience my father had, I have become more aware of transitions, especially our final transition out of this world. I have friends who have died, or who have lost loved ones, and I have friends who have been facing terminal illnesses.

One such friend finally finished her fight with metastatic cancer and went home to be the Lord. I met her in 2005, when she had been diagnosed with brain cancer and was facing surgery. She was terrified, and a mutual friend introduced us, since she knew I had gone through brain surgery myself a few years before. She and I spoke regularly, before and after appointments, and whenever she was feeling low.

She learned a few things from me, but her case quickly advanced beyond anything I had experienced. From the day we met, I was learning from her. She showed me optimism, determination, courage, passion for living, love of family, and love of God. Her last communication to me said she was in the hospital and didn't want to die. A week or two later, she passed away.

A pastor I like is fond of saying that the mortality rate in the United States is 100%. Everyone dies. What matters is not when, how, or where we die. It is how we live. How we treat others. How we share what we have with those who need help. Our capacity for mercy. Our capacity for kindness.

We all get opportunities to serve. Some are large and famous, but most are barely visible, known only to a privileged few. Few catch every opportunity to serve, but God provides regular chances. As we start to recognize and act on them, He sends us more. Crucially, He also gives us what we need to act on them successfully. Sometimes it's just a smile, a kind word, a pat on the back. We often underestimate these things since they are not a whole solution, but simply a reassurance backed by no additional action.

People, and especially men, are uncomfortable with providing only pieces of solutions. We tend to hesitate unless we have a brilliant, comprehensive answer to whatever another person needs. Simply saying, 'good luck' doesn't feel helpful. Yet it may be just that small encouragement that enables another person to keep persevering when giving up seems a more practical plan.

Lord, thank you for the people in my life and the opportunity to pray for them. Thank you for teaching me through their experiences and their response to adversity as well as success.

Lord, watch over our friends, neighbors, colleagues, classmates, and all people. Bless them with faith, peace, and joy, no matter what their circumstances may be.

Thank you for always being with us, especially during major transitions in life. Your presence assures us of the right outcome, even when it doesn't turn out as we would like.

I love you very much.

In the saving name of Jesus I pray, AMEN!

Jim is a blogger about the intersection of Christianity and everyday life. He is the author of two books about prayer from the perspective of a regular person. You can find his books on his Amazon author page and links from this website to those books.

Feel free to email Jim with comments or questions at, tweet at him on twitter @DonaherJim or on his Facebook page

Thanks for reading!



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