Death Hurts Just As Much in Camden

“Good people are put in a bad world full of violence, sometimes with many crimes. But when you know a good person has passed you know they’re in a much better place now. Knowing they’re in that better place can help you recover from the loss.”

Thus answered one of the freshmen at UrbanPromise Academy to my test question, “What does ‘death gives meaning to life’ mean to you?”. I was expecting the answers to be along the theme of appreciating the small things in life – and I did read some of those answers, but I also read a number expressing relief at being taken out of this world.

I was young – I guess early to mid teens – when I first felt the awareness of mass suffering sink in. Of course it was the starving people of Africa – I remember seeing lots of pictures of gaunt mothers and children with swollen bellies. I distinctly remember coping with this by thinking that these people must be different from us – that this was their normal, that it couldn’t possibly hurt as much as when we experienced individual suffering on this side of the world. I am not proud that I thought that way, but it’s true.

And then when I went to college – Gwynedd Mercy College – one of the Mercy nuns taught a course called, “The Theology of Suffering”. I was nineteen when I took it. Our big assignment was to write a paper about “if you only had one year to live, how would you live it?” I remember being devastated by this thought. While I certainly was aware of death – my maternal grandfather died, and I saw dying people during clinical rounds – I had never once contemplated my own death. I poured my heart and soul into that paper, and had tears in my eyes as I handed it in – I know that nun must have gotten her share of entertaining stories to tell from that class!

When I asked the 14 freshman at UPA how many had thought about themselves dying, 12 raised their hands.

Thankfully all of them – and all of the 7 seniors – saw themselves living to ripe old ages. I know this is due to the hope that is given out in large doses at UrbanPromise. This is a striking contrast to conversations I had with Luis (see earlier posts) who didn’t think he would make it past 18. He actually threw himself a big party for his 18th birthday to celebrate being alive.

Despite an increased awareness of death at ages when youth usually consider themselves immortal, it was still very painful to talk about it in both health classes. One young man wrote on his homework, “I don’t like to think about this :(“. Conversations were thoughtful, and the idea of making amends with the people you love, as well as expressing appreciation more frequently was a recurring theme.

I don’t know what I take away from this other than a strong conviction that these children are just as deserving of love and protection as youth living elsewhere. I would like to read more innocence in their answers to questions about death. Perhaps the ones who do survive will have more wisdom than their counterparts in safe suburban communities. Knowing this about them makes me want to treat them with great respect.


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