Have you ever held a youngperson in your arms and watched her die? There is something about it that stays with a man until he takes his last breath. When I was a Los Angeles police officer, my partner and I would often sneak out of our division into neighboring divisions where we could get something decent to eat for Code 7 (lunch). There wasn’t much to eat in the ghetto at two o’clock in the morning, so we often drove north to the USC campus or the Hollywood area. Code 7 was forty-five minutes of peace amid the chaos.
My partner and I were eating late-night pancakes when a hysterical woman ran into the restaurant, screaming that there had been a car crash just outside, and people were dying. It sounds harsh, but at the time, we resented being bothered. This was supposed to be our moment of peace, and we saw dying people all the time. We radioed for an RA Unit (para-medics) and some officers from the Traffic Division to handle the accident and walked outside.
You just never know what is around the corner or just outside Denny’s. A motorcycle was down, crushed under a car. A boy about eighteen was unconscious, bleeding severely from his head. He wasn’t wearing a helmet. Behind him on the bike was a beautiful girl, also about eigh-teen. She had a helmet, and I didn’t see any blood on her. But her eyes had the glassy stare of the dying.
She looked up at me and put her arms out like a child wanting a hug. I stood there, thinking about what had been drilled into me through train-ing—never touch a wounded person unless there’s a life-saving need.
“Hold me,” she whispered. It was a plea.So I sat down and wrapped my arms around her, putting her head in my lap.The boy woke up and looked at us, unmoving. “I was taking her to the hos-pital,” he said. “Her brother was just in a motorcycle accident. I wanted to get her there as fast as possible. Man, what did I do? Is she going to live?”. Then she convulsed. Her body shuddered with the seizure of the dying. I held her closer and tried to calm her body. It seemed disgraceful to let her spasm like that. I think I was trying to hold her soul in to keep her from dying there on the street.
Her convulsions slowed, and as I was watching her face, she looked up, but not at my face. Her eyes were on my badge. She kept moving her lips, trying to speak, but no sounds came out. She reached up and grasped my badge, and then the life left her eyes. One moment I was holding life in my arms. The next, I was holding a corpse. She was gone.
The two traffic cops we’d requested showed up on their motorcycles. It was the same two older officers who seemed to show up every time I needed a traffic unit. There was a strange sort of camaraderie between us, even though we had barely spoken to each other, maybe because we’d handled so many horrific accidents together.
I was hesitant to speak because I was afraid I’d cry. “He was taking her to the hospital to see her brother,” I blurted out. “The brother was just in a motorcycle accident.” The traffic cops looked at each other and then back at me. “Hollywood Presbyterian?” one of them asked. I nodded.
“Oh no!” the other said. “We just came from handling that accident. Her brother died.” We all just stood there for a moment, looking at her. “You know the thing about it, man?” one of them asked. “Their parents are on vacation. These were their only two kids.” When I watched this girl die in my arms, it hit me particularly hard. I’d seen criminals die many times, and I’d seen many dead people, but this was one of the few times I’d watched an innocent person die. Watching someone die is always the same—there is a distinctly visual sense of the soul leaving the body. In some cases, it seemed peaceful, and in others, it came with violence and fear. When we see the tragedy of death right in front of us, it seems unnatural. But everyone must die, so if we are just a collection of cells, death should seem just a mundane part of human existence, right? Instead, death is a horrifyingly terrible moment, and it genuinely feels wrong when it happens.
It’s strange that we all have such a deep conviction that death isn’t the end, unless, of course, it isn’t the end at all. The Bible teaches us that our souls are eternal, and death is our separation from the bodies in which they are housed. But what happens to our souls when our bodies die, and why is that separation so terrifying?
Death, like evil or darkness, is not a thing; rather, it is the lack of a thing. It is a parasite, deriving its essence from something else. Darkness wasn’t created; it is simply a lack of light. In the same way, cold is the absence of heat. If you grasp a cold door handle, you aren’t feeling cold; you’re feeling the door handle robbing you of the heat from your hand. In this way, death and evil are really the same things; they are both not God. People who do not understand God claim that if He created everything, He must have created evil. No. When God created a person with a choice, the potential for evil was born. Once that some-one chose something other than God, evil became a reality, and with it came death—be-cause God is life (see John 11:25; John 14:6; 1 John 5:20).
The need for spiritual health is vital to the physical and mental health of people because, without spiritual awareness, a man or woman feels alone as they face mortality. Death, something that is as much a part of life as birth, becomes terrifying in it seems sense-lessness. It is a door we must all walk through alone. Without a spiritual sense of purpose, looking toward the end of life can be filled with emptiness. Thankfully, God didn’t leave us in such an awful state. In order to satisfy justice, He became a man and died for us after having lived a perfect life. He suffered through the same temptations and injustices that all people have experienced and yet never succumbed. By giving away His life, He satisfied the demands that justice required for the wrongs done by every person. Everyone who believes in Him is released from the ultimate penalty of evil and death (John 3:16 and 17). The Bible promises that though our bodies die, our souls and spirits, who we really are, live forever.
Since moving from law enforcement into business leadership and now running Christian ministries, I’ve been in the position to see death from a different perspective. Rather than the violent and quick deaths on the streets of Los Angeles, I’ve walked with people during the slow death process from cancer, dementia, MLS, and others. We’ve had long, authentic conversations that pierced straight into the soul.
I’ve noticed that in people with true spiritual maturity— not people of strong religion— but true spiritual health, the process tends to be marked by peace. They understand that the death of the body is simply a release of their soul and spirit.
I lost a dear friend two months ago to cancer. He spent his life helping troubled youth get an education. Tom started a school for violent kids who had been expelled from every school in the city and lost any hope of public education. He ran that school for over thirty years, and his graduation rate was almost 100%. His college attendance rate was ten points higher than the city average.
Tom experienced two very painful surgeries and two different chemotherapy sessions that would simply prolong his life by a few months, not heal him. As I brought him Chick-fil-A and sat with him during one of the sessions, I asked him why he was putting up with so much pain simply for a few extra months of life. “I just want to see one more class graduate, Ken,” he said. He’d seen thirty classes graduate, but he clung to life for one more. Tom never complained, and he never quit, but he died in complete peace.
Tom was a man who exuded spiritual health, even as his body was wracked with disease. Hundreds of thrown-away kids were blessed by his life. The man he had been was evident in the way he died. He was at peace with the world, and he left it assured that he was going someplace much better.
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