What Happens When We Die? Can’t Ask, Can’t Tell!
My time of mourning is now mostly behind me, what remains is to finish saying goodbye to what was, then hello to what is, and shortly after, hello to what is yet to be. This is the end, the last part of my blogging about my personal experience with grief (unless I get enough interest from you, my reader, to keep it going. I mean, um, really? No comments?) Next week, back to skills and savvy for practicing the art of persuasion. Thank you for your patience and understanding.
As my Mom’s friends and family shared their grief with me about her going away forever, most offered me their blessings and reassurances that she’s still with me or her memory will live on or her spirit is eternal. Some told me of their own experiences with the loss of loved ones that confirmed their belief in life after death. Compassion and connection often seem all-too- rare in a world where people are so busy with work or otherwise completely consumed by self interest. But in this period of mourning with my family, love and support came in abundance.
The outpouring has been ongoing, stunning and uplifting. I am deeply grateful for every word, thought and gift of love and support.
Each and every day, I’ve known that the real work of grief is saying goodbye, and I’ve been working on it. I now say the final goodbye so I can get on with my life. I’m sure that’s what my Mom would want me to do. Not only is it important for me to get busy again in order to maintain my ability to earn and support my family in a shrinking economy, but getting on with my life seems like the best way to honor my Mom. She gave birth to me so that I might live. Mom used to say that ‘ life is for living.’ A constant in the advice I’ve received from others about how they deal successfully with their dead is to get back to living. Making the most of what’s given us, including that given by those who have passed, replenishes the soil of living while giving more value to life lost as well.
Now I have some of my perspective back. And as I look at the larger picture of what transpired here, I think that death brings people together because the inevitable end of life is something we all have in common. And I think that the reassurances I heard were, to some degree, what people tell themselves about death in order to deal with their fear of it and want for themselves when faced with it.
Fixing To Die, Afraid to Live
“It’s not that I am afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” -Woody Alley
This is earth. Life can be hard here, and nobody gets out alive. Wealth and privilege do not protect anyone from the whim and mercy of fate. I find it interesting that most of the world’s religions (Christianity, Islam, the Ancient Egyptians and Romans, Hindus, etc.) seem to promote the idea that death is better than life, something to look forward to, prepare for, and be ready for when it comes, because after-life is THE BIG DEAL, and what happens here in life is just warmups, or death is when we are in the presence of God and is therefore a more spiritual state than life.
My family’s religious tradition values life over death (Judaism). The best we’re offered from our teachers and spiritual leaders is that when we die, we will be one with God, because our prayers say it is so. Yet we don’t know what it means or how it happens. It’s a big enough generalization that it can say everything while saying nothing. The emphasis is on living, healing, repairing the world, attending to truth and justice.
Last month, I had a conversation in a hallway with Debbie, the wonderfully generous caregiver who looked after my Mom in her final days. She asked me if there was something comforting I could tell my mother about dying “so she won’t be afraid of it.” And I said, “I’m afraid there’s not much I have to say about it that would be a comfort.” For me, death is the big unknown and I am satisfied with that. I have no idea what happens after life. When it comes to the stories, I don’t believe, and I also don’t disbelieve. I simply am comfortable with ‘I don’t know.’
Some people cling to the promise of a second chance to be with loved ones. Some believe with all their heart in that they get to go to live with God. Some believe that they are among the chosen who will receive a special privilege in the afterlife because they’ve been obedient, or faithful, or pure. And there are those who see death as the opportunity to get a fresh start, based on the assumption that reincarnation is a guarantee. These ideas obviously give them great comfort in times of loss. Yet it seems to me that their beliefs and comforting stories must assume that there is a heaven into which they will gain admittance or the stories don’t work. They must assume a correct understanding of the source from which they got these stories, though from my own reading of such things, I find much room for interpretation. What are your assumptions about death? What do you actually know?
It seems so obvious to me that the idea that death is somehow better than life is rooted in untestable assumptions about what happens when someone dies. Nobody knows what happens, though a surprising number of people claim to know.
Now, I’ve been asked by people who know me why I don’t cling to and comfort myself with some cherished story about what comes after life. My answer is that I am more concerned with living my life than I am with my death. I don’t know how long I’ve got in this world, but I want to make the most of this, and not waste a moment on that.
I’m reminded of a story involving Benjamin Franklin. It takes place on the steps in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Franklin was known to contribute generously to every house of worship in town, regardless of denomination, though he famously never showed up for anyone’s services. As I heard the tale, a clergyman demanded of Franklin in front of a crowd, “Do you, or do you not, believe in the holy Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost?!!!” Franklin calmly replied, “Sir, I honestly do not know. I suppose the truth must wait until I die. Meanwhile, I believe we are in need of a new firehouse.”
Now, having told you my truth on dying, I feel the need to share with you some of my own speculation. When my father in law was passing away, he spent the last 9 days of his life laying on a hospital bed set up by hospice in his living room. A parade of family and friends came through to pay their respects and say goodbye. Chuck had stopped eating and drinking completely, intentionally and purposefully as far as I could tell. He’d fought the good fight and knew it was time to let go. I saw him a few hours before his passing, wished him a safe journey, thanked him for his love and for his daughter, my wife. And he turned and looked at me. He spoke in a whisper quiet voice (He had said just about nothing for those 9 days). He said, “I’m going to fly away.”
I found myself thinking about this for days afterwards. Mostly, thinking about his eyes. His skin. Everything about him seemed barely here. It was as if he had mostly gone. Then it hit me. According to physics, life really isn’t all that physical. Life is apparently energy and space. That solid chair you are sitting in? Not solid. Your body? Not solid. Maybe when we die, all that happens is we let go of the illusions of life and find ourselves in a true awareness of reality, of space, of the non physicality of it all, and whatever that is (God? Hmmm.) I suppose I’ll find out the truth when I die. Or not. Meanwhile…
I am grateful for this life my mother gave me, grateful for an end to my mother’s suffering, grateful for this time with friends and family, tending to the important things in life. The only bad feelings I have are for those who are more afraid to live than they are to die, or who look forward to death as a way out of the uncertainty and difficulty of life. Because what if there is no way out, only what’s next, and what matters most is the same then as it is now, what you choose to do with what is given you?
Back next week (if I live!) to finish up the series I began a couple weeks back on the art of persuasion on the telephone. Meanwhile, you know what I want from you. COMMENTS! Please, don’t take this moment for granted. If you have something to say, say it. We only have right now for sure.
It’s dark out, I’m posting tomorrow’s post tonite. Then I will rest in peace.