When a friend you love and admire dies unexpectedly, it’s hard not to make it about you.  It’s human nature.

There are right and wrong ways to connect with the death of someone who is not a close relative or even a best friend – but someone who was part of your life in some truly meaningful way. The wrong way is to use the death to evoke sympathy for yourself, or to rush to be the first to tell others, or to insinuate that the relationship was somehow more intimate than it was.

I am struggling with the right way. Let me try. This sudden death of a friend my own age, apparently from a blood clot, is a life-altering, gut-punching stunner – not just for me, but for everyone who knew Mende George. I was sitting alone at a bar in Coral Gables, Fla., after a day of class when the Facebook traffic started to reveal shock from a premature death, somehow related to church. But my phone service was spotty. When Sue finally texted the name, the alarmed bartender approached and asked if I were OK.

I don’t relate this story to elicit a “sorry for your loss.” I am struggling with what it means and how I can honor Mende by approaching life differently, waking up to some enhanced sensitivity of the soul, being a better person.

Mende made us laugh. She was this unique combination of church lady in pearls who could drink both of us under the table and deliver a profane insult in a deadpan way that made you bawl with laughter. She and her husband, Alan, were high-school sweethearts and obviously madly in love. We enjoyed being with them; they served up earnest conversation and abundant hospitality when you visited their home, and kept the wine flowing. She had two sons of whom she was fiercely proud, and she was anticipating becoming a grandmother.

Her passion was teaching children about the Bible and Jesus, and she was a devotee of the Godly Play curriculum. She was a stern stickler for Godly Play purity and let you know pointedly when you transgressed. She left our parish, which was difficult for her, so she could follow her passion and actually be paid to be a youth and family minister at another Episcopal church. They quickly grew to love her as we did. Our last communication was her invitation to attend church with them last Sunday.

We have not yet experienced Mende’s funeral and the beautiful, mystical Episcopal liturgy:

“You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind;
and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we
return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying,
‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ All of us go down
to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia,
alleluia, alleluia.

As I inched through Miami rush-hour traffic on my way back from class today, I thought about the status of my soul. With absolutely no notice or preparation for exiting this life, would I –

  • have wasted too much time arguing on Facebook and Huffington Post?
  • have watched too many episodes of American Pickers? 
  • have worked too much when I retired to live with meaning and intention?
  • have been too self-absorbed and not in the moment for my fellow humans?
  • have spent too many precious minutes inching through rush-hour traffic?

Or would I maximize my time with the people I love, be alert enough to deliver random acts of kindness to strangers, follow the teachings of Jesus, and tap into the creative force that God sends flowing through each of us?

This death has shaken clergy who usually stand resolute to minister to the rest of us. Our deacon, Pat, posted the poem, “Grief,” by Gwen Flowers, which ends:

“Grief is not a task to finish
And move on,
But an element of yourself-
An alteration of your being.
A new way of seeing.
A new definition of self.”

The most fitting tribute to Mende is to let her passing lead us into this altered being, this new way of seeing. I invite everyone who loved and will miss Mende to pray for this new definition of self. Amen.