When Death Starts to Take Our Friends

By: Stephen McAlpine

So you reach an age when your friends all start to die.

News that Friends star, Matthew Perry, died suddenly after an apparent heart attack in his hot tub, met with the usual outpouring of grief. And rightly so. He was a gifted man, a tortured man, an honest man about his gifts and tortures.

I wasn’t a huge Friends fan, but it was a staple of my cohort back in the day. And, contrary to what I read yesterday, it wasn’t a Millennial thing as much as it was an X-Gen thing. Surely. I mean he’s – he was – our age (ok I’m two years older and my wife was born in the same year as Perry). But it was funny – Perry as Chandler being the funniest.

If you could overlook the improbably of the conceits within the series (how did they afford those places on little work? How could they do relationships and relational tension without hating each other?) it held a huge appeal in a time that seemed more innocent than today.

Of course it’s darker, transgressive, slightly older cousin, Beverley Hills 90210, was also a staple of that generation. You could imagine 90210 stealing Dad’s cigarettes and smoking them behind the shed, all the while Friends standing watching in horrified, admiration going “Um ahh, you’re terrible!“

But both set the moral framework (or reflected it?) in some way of their times. And both were watched insatiably. And both contained a young talented star with the surname Perry, who died ahead of his time. That’s right folks, before Luke Perry was a smouldering father on Riverdale, he was a smouldering stud muffin on 90210, all bad boy looks. And dead aged 52 in 2019.

The Relentless March of Ageing

I posted a recent picture of Matthew Perry because that’s what it looks like to reach fifty-something. And he’s lucky. All his own hair! But somehow posting a pic of him in his late twenties prime doesn’t do justice to what it means to reach your mid-fifties. I mean, do we really age like that? Do we see ourselves like that? Do we look back at pictures of ourselves – and our friends – as young people and go “Wow, young people can be beautiful?” Even us ugly ones!

Perry’s death (both Perrys actually) sobers us. It reminds us of the fleeting nature of life and the fading nature of beauty. Writer that I am, I think about death all of the time, and indeed have done so for as long as I can remember. That’s just the way it is. I’ve marvelled about it, been troubled by it, circled it and watched it, as it has indeed been circling and watching me.

Above: St Jerome with his famous skull, translating the Bible

Memento Miori

I still remember the day I walked into an ancient church in England when Jill and I were on holidays there in 1999, fresh-faced and during peak Friends.

There on the wall was an ancient memento mori – a call to remember death. A painted skull and crossbones on the sandstone, with the words “Life How Short – Eternity How Long”. And those words banged like a gong inside my head. I have an old picture of it somewhere that I can’t find. Probably with the other pics from that time, with me and Jill looking so young and beautiful (well she was – and still is!).

St Jerome is painted with a skull on his desk, and you’ll see that technique employed by many artists down the years. It’s a reminder that life is short, that there is a final day for you which, as I’ve come to realise for myself, may be before Jesus comes back! But it’s a great idea is it not? All theologians and pastors should have a skull on their desk. Not to be morose, but to remind them of how fleeting it all is. It’s not as if anything else in this age will remind you of death.

Which is a great irony. We are surrounded by it. Death is everywhere. Filling our news, our screens. Yet, clearly, not filling our minds. It’s as if we’re inured to it, or in denial of it, which – of course – we are.

Growing up in a fundamentalist background, with some crazy Rapture theology, I expected Jesus to come back soon – very soon, and depending on how much I’d repented, my role in the subsequent “vanishing” was up for grabs. Which was never much comfort during the vanities of my youth!

Yet now? I am two years older than my father-in-law was on the day of our wedding. I still remember his speech. I still remember thinking about his age. And here I am. I am fourteen years away from 70. I remember too when Jill started going through menopause and we grieved a little. Not because we wanted more children, but because it was a reminder that we had entered the next stage of life, the one closer – all things being equal, which they never are, – to death.

Jill and I have lain in bed next to each other on many a morning – holding each other – and actually talking about that anticipatory grief. That we have less years ahead of us to lie there in each other’s arms, feeling the warmth of skin and the rising and falling of our breathing, as the sun streams in through the windows and we contemplate another busy day that will be one more ticked off the list. Death is no respecter of persons.

The – also dead – David Bowie wrote of it brilliantly in his 1972 song, Soul Love:

Stone love, she kneels before the grave/A brave son, who gave his life/To save the slogans
That hovers between the headstone and her eyes/For they penetrate her grieving

New love, a boy and girl are talking/New words, that only they can share in
New words, a love so strong it tears their hearts/To sleep through the fleeting hours of morning

Eternity how long! For soldier and lovers alike. Every morning’s hours are fleeting. They flitter away without us so much as realising! On an added note, who writes words like that any longer? Bowie was a genius.

Facing the Idea of Death

I was told I was going to die, once. I mean, I was told that I was going to die in a very short period of time of a dreadful illness. I didn’t. Here I am still. So far. But for a few short weeks the full impact that one day very soon would be my last day and after that, eternity, was seared into my brain. The enormous reality of it hit me. And I was only 42. The lurking truth came out of the shadows over there and stared me in the face right here.

And so, having avoided death then, I age. And age. And age. Time, it seems, is going to do me slowly. Though not so slowly. I have had a busy year, flights all over the country all of the time, and the boxed Christmas tree that we put away just a short while ago, is on the verge of being dragged out again. Really? How did that happen?

Of course, none of this is to dismiss the amazing joy of the gospel hope of the resurrection of Jesus. A man who didn’t cheat death, but defeated death. And for us. And that’s what gives me hope. And to be honest that’s what enables me to think about death a lot without going stir crazy.

And why wouldn’t people go stir crazy? The Scriptures tell us this:

 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he [Jesus] himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

People ask me how I became a Christian. I prefer to talk about why I still am one! After all, too many of my friends have walked away from Jesus.

Now there’s lots that keeps me. His faithfulness, his power to change my life, his goodness, the fact that what he offers to me is more satisfying than the many lures and vanities that bite and nibble at my heels and heart. But as I get older, it’s this: I am growing closer to the inevitable end of my life. I need a hope beyond the grave!

I can’t begin to imagine hitting my late fifties and into my sixties without this hope. Without going stir-crazy about death. Yet people do. My neighbours do. We chat. They plan retirements. Plan house renovations in their late fifties and early sixties. Plan trips overseas. I walk past old people in their seventies and wonder “Do they even contemplate that they are close to death?” It seems that the enslaved fear of death is something that we can find a pill – any pill – to numb us towards.

Perhaps the death of the two Perrys at such young ages is a wake up call that one day we won’t wake up. And that time goes so quickly, and that life feels shorts because it is! And it feels unfair, though it is just because of our rebellion against our Creator. Our only hope, is the one who defeated death.

Death takes our friends – and it will indeed take us. Yet because our dearest Friend took death for us, we can live with joy and confidence and hope, even as the fleeting hours of morning pass us by. Is that the case for you today?

Article supplied with thanks to Stephen McAlpine

About the Author: Stephen has been reading, writing and reflecting ever since he can remember. He is the lead pastor of Providence Church Midland, and in his writing dabbles in a number of fields, notably theology and culture. Stephen and his family live in Perth’s eastern suburbs, where his wife Jill runs a clinical psychology practice.

Feature images: Matthew Perry / Facebook