What 'Lost' Taught Us about Dying Well
Three episodes before the series finale of Lost, after witnessing the deaths of three beloved main characters, I thought to myself, "Oh, no—they're all going to die." At this point, so few original survivors of Oceanic 815 remained that the hope of anybody leaving the island alive seemed implausible.
I was glad that the finale didn't play out quite the way I had feared. But I was still sort of right: Everybody was going to die. Sometime, whether we saw it on screen or not.
I'm realizing that the entire series can be seen as a six-year meditation on how human beings approach death. In the pilot, death struck unexpectedly with a plane crash on a Pacific island. And every episode to follow dealt in some way with desperate efforts to live and avoid death.
At the beginning, the primary needs were survival. Food, water, shelter. Jack, Kate, Locke, Sawyer, and all the rest worked together to take care of the wounded and to help one another survive the island's threats. The goal was to avoid death and to get home.
Even though many unnamed redshirts and minor characters died in season 1, it wasn't until the first main cast death [Boone] that viewers realized that not all of these survivors were going to make it off the island. And the Grim Reaper has steadily cut his way through the cast members each season. Some deaths were foreshadowed, like a looming terminal illness. But others came suddenly, without warning. Death is unpredictable.
As the series progressed, we as viewers reacted with all of the common responses of grief. I often found myself in denial. After the heart-wrenching season three finale, I kept hoping, "Maybe he [Charlie] isn't really dead. He survived somehow. We'll find out next season that he's okay." Many fans bargained with the directors to bring back beloved characters (which they did, in post-mortem appearances and flash-sideways).
As the death toll rose, a sense of resignation and inevitability came. The funerals on the beach happened more frequently. Again we'd see someone digging a grave, and again we'd see Hurley's downcast face. At first, there were brief ceremonies of remembrance, a few words spoken. After a while, not many remaining survivors were even left to pay tribute to those who had died.
By the end, all of us, characters and viewers alike, came to some degree of resignation and acceptance. One of the key lines in the finale that made sense of the whole series was "Everybody dies sometime." Death is inevitable. And while we can fight it and stave it off as long as we can, at some point, we recognize that there is nothing we can do to avoid it.
Rob Moll's new book The Art of Dying argues that over the last century or so, Christians have lost the practice of dying well. Christians used to have intentional ways to prepare for one's death, to number one's days. Christians approached death purposefully, making things right between them and God and others. These days, death has been medicalized and partitioned off from everyday life, leaving most of us without the resources to prepare adequately for death, whether one's own or a loved one's. We don't know what to do when death comes.
So a show like Lost can actually help us grapple with the reality of death. The characters' stories have often centered around "unfinished business" from their pre-island lives that needed to be resolved in some way. Moll notes that when Christians practice the art of dying, we learn to reconcile ourselves to God and others before death, saying important things like "Please forgive me," "I forgive you," "Thank you," and "I love you." Some of these very phrases were used in Lost (before and after characters' deaths), as a model to us for our own relationships. Some bloggers commented after the finale that the show had prompted them to cherish their own loved ones now, in this life, before it's too late.