Thoughts about Death: Apologies, Henry Scott Holland, but Death is SOMETHING and Our Loved Ones Are NOT in the Next Room

The first photo I took of Gary, a few weeks after we met

Today marks 14 years since Gary Frank Barnabo, my first husband, died in Sydney, Australia.

In the days and weeks immediately following Gary’s death, I received countless, heartfelt, beautiful letters and notes and cards. A dear friend sent the famous words of Englishman Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918), from a 1910 sermon delivered when Holland was Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral. (If my friend is reading this post, be certain I loved and appreciated your caring for me, then and now; it’s Holland’s words about which I protest.)

This piece is often referred to as In the Next Room or – horribly, in my opinion — Death is nothing at all. Different versions abound on the Internet; I share here the words sent to me:

Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I, and you are you. Whatever we were to each other, that we still are. Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me in the easy way you always used. Put no difference in your tone, wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Pray, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was, let it be spoken without effect, without the trace of a shadow on it. Life means all that it ever meant, it is the same as it ever was: there is unbroken continuity. Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well.

In particular, this poem’s first two sentences and final sentence grated on me at the time (though I agree with the other sentiments) and still grate on me today.

Seriously, what NOT to say to the recently-bereaved is, ‘Death is nothing at all.’

OK, OK. I think I know what Mr. Holland meant: he’s speaking figuratively, metaphorically, saying the person is in the ‘next room’ of Heaven, or some kind of beautiful afterlife, where believers trust we will meet again in perfect love and joy.

As it happens, my faith is such that I believe, too. I believe there is far more to life on this earth than we humans can ever comprehend.

But I have lost a brother and uncle in an automobile accident, my first husband to cancer, my father to a painful albeit 86 year-old death and too many others to untimely ends — and I know I’m not alone in this — to think ‘death is nothing at all.’

Death is SOMETHING! It is EVERYTHING when it happens. For a time it is all-powerful, all-consuming and all-painful. And, literally of course, the person is NOT in the next room. They are in our hearts and minds but we pine for them. We yearn with all our being for their presence, their voice, their touch but they are not in the kitchen or the loungeroom or the bedroom. They are not there.

We weep. We grieve. We mourn. Two days after my brother Rob and Uncle Ted were killed in an automobile accident, my mother said, ‘Don’t be angry with God (I wasn’t, but she worried). God is grieving with us.’ I believe this. I believe God was grieving with me and Gary’s sons when Gary took his last breath on this earth and in the weeks and months that followed. I believe in the Footprints prayer that God carries us when we cannot walk on our own.

Gary and his sons at Kennebunkport, Maine

I understand the impulse that seems to have swept the world, to rename a funeral a ‘celebration of life’ but, gosh, sometimes I want to scream, ‘We are solemn! We are sorrowful! Life is NOT the same as it ever was! We are grieving this person’s death!’ The societies in which people scream and wail and pound their fists know a lot about how to grieve.

I know, too, that the response to a death depends on many factors, including the person’s age and stage and the circumstances of the death, not to mention the survivors’ relationships with those who have died. Sometimes death relieves suffering and for that reason alone is considered a blessing.

Even then, I assert, death – death from life on this earth — is NOT nothing at all.

I know Mr. Holland believed in eternal life, but he could have acknowledged that in our messy, earthly life, death is a life-changing something! The only ‘nothing’ that comes into it is that nothing will ever be the same again.

For quite a while, all is NOT well. It may be well, even perfect, in Heaven and for that I am thankful. But for those here on earth, even those with a strong faith, it’s not always so easy. My heart breaks for everyone who is grieving and I know that although time does help, it’s not always as much or as soon as some people hope.

Today I acknowledge the impact of a person’s death on his or her loved ones, and give extra thanks for the life Gary Frank Barnabo. I’ve written about Gary before, about our meeting and how lucky I felt throughout our marriage; about the kind of person he was and the gifts he gave to the world; about the tradition I’ve developed to scatter red rose petals in his memory each August 2nd – at Shelly Beach in Sydney, his favourite place, or wherever I may be.

Gary and our son when we lived in Connecticut

This afternoon, I scattered rose petals in the Felixstowe seafront gardens, onto a group of ferns since it was too windy to do much else and Gary loved ferns.

Then I came home to Clive, my second husband, who helped me find joy again, and gave deep and heartfelt thanks for him as well. I gave Clive a red rose for his desk, as always. Red roses for love, for the men in my life.

Thank you for reading and may all those who are grieving eventually find peace.

16 Responses

  1. A very powerful piece Carolyn. .yoi are so right. Our loved ones are not in the next room . I am not very good dealing with death ..especially a death of a male ..Makes a me think of my dad ( he is thought of a lot ) 50 years ago this year ..I was 10 and he was 40 .. missed so much togetherness and him seeing me grow up or him grow older and wiser.. I have very little memory , just an adorable man. Big hugs ..thinking of you .hugs and love xo

  2. Anne, thank you and oh, how sad about losing your father, especially at such a young age. My heart aches for you too (and your mom, and dad and any other siblings). So much loss and very poignant he was an adorable man xxx

  3. These are powerful words and they resonate with me. Thanks for your transparency, for sharing these important truths with us. And God bless.

  4. I have tears in my eyes as I finish reading your post, but I love the rituals that you have for remembering your first husband and honouring your second.

  5. I agree Carolyn – sometimes it is better to give words of comfort and leave it at that.

  6. Carolyn, this is so touching and I thought of my friends who just recently lost their grandson. I will share with them. I think your symbolic gestures of grieving and remembering are truly special. Blessings to you and Clive as you deal with past memories and create your own new memories together. Best!

    • Linda, thanks for your lovely thoughts. I can’t imagine what it must be like to grieve for a grandchild and also your own child’s grief. All sympathy and prayers to your friends and their family. Merci!

  7. Your traditions each August 2 are lovely and so meaningful. I wish, however, you would read Henry Holland’s entire sermon.The words so often quoted suggest what might be our wishful thinking about death. He compares that with what death brings to those left behind: often pain and anguish. Such is often true when mourning the death of a king.

    While using the words out of context is meant to bring comfort to those left behind, you are right that death does not always come after the fullness of life. Many in Europe this past week were remembering the Battle of Passchendale–those thousands of young men who died in the terrible mud–the flowering of an entire generation. I don’t think Holland would be surprised at anyone who rails at the unfairness of death.

    • Eleanor, thanks and I did read the sermon yesterday as I researched Holland. As mentioned I do agree with much of what he says; e.g. speaking about the person. The writing sent to me is still for some reason a ‘favourite bereavement poem’ – not mine though!

      We watched much of the Passchendale ceremonies on BBC here and they were very moving. Perhaps I’ll do a future post on what grief/death poems really spoke/speak to me; some are indeed written during or after wars.

  8. I don’t usually follow your blog, here and there I take a peek. Chris S told us today to read it and I’m very glad he did. I agree with you completely, Carolyn. Death is not nothing. You may remember that my mom died with Alzheimers on Christmas Eve last year at 97. Chris’s dad died 8 months before, a week after his 93rd birthday. The loss of both in such a short time was devastating to many and we miss them very much. It’s too much to describe here. What always bothered me and still does was when well-meaning people, upon learning of their passing, asked their age and said only, “Oh, he/she lived a good long life.” Nothing else. That’s it. As if that makes the loss ok. I know it’s not the same as your beautiful blog above, but the feeling is there. Death is a great loss of a loved one.
    Your rose petal tradition is lovely and thoughtful. I’m very happy for you that you found Clive.

    • Birgit, what an eloquent comment. Thank you so much and apologies for not answering yesterday. I agree the feeling is always there regardless of the age and you’ve put it so well about the great loss and missing them so much. Appreciate your thoughts and send a big hug to you and your Chris xx

  9. Thank you so much for writing thus beautuful piece. It remibds me I am not alone in the way I feel about the death of our beautiful boy whi wiĺl forever be 12. Thinking of you always. Lots if Love Caz xx

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