Thursday, September 15, 2016

On Death

I am often called upon to do memorial services.  When they are for parishioners, people whom I know, I usually speak about the person's life, what it meant to me.  I emphasize that death is part of life, a normal part, a transition into something else; that our relationships with those who have passed are not ended, just changed; that we keep those relationships and those spirits who have passed alive in our telling of stories, in our memories, and that we learn to relate to their spirits in new ways.  I stress that all feelings are welcomed and honored by God: that we celebrate their lives but also grieve our loss of them.  When I do a memorial for someone I don't know, I say the same, often relating stories told to me by the family.  Inviting laughter as well as tears.

But I am aware that there is much that I don't say.  I don't use memorials as a time to berate others to "believe or fear the wrath of hell!" I don't believe that, so how could I say it? I don't talk about what heaven will be like because I have no idea what happens after we die and I'm really clear about that. To me, scriptural references to "heaven" or "eternal life" are a way of talking about moments in which we experience the Divine.  Not sure they have much to do with what happens or where we go after we die.  I know that may surprise some of you, but it's my truth.  I do think our spirits continue in some way.  Just from a scientific perspective the law of conservation says nothing new is created or destroyed, just changed.  I tend to feel that applies to our spirits as well.  But again, I see that as more of a scientific belief and less of a religious one.  I have felt the presence of loved ones that have passed, but I also know that could simply be a strong memory emerging, a smell I encounter that feels or reminds me of them.  There have been strange moments: I swore I saw my grandfather standing in my room in the night just slightly after he died but before I knew he had passed.  Since there is a collective unconscious of sorts though,  perhaps my experiences are just tapping into that.  

Many people use their faith as a kind of life insurance.  It is a protection against death, a belief that if they just do or believe or say the right things that death will not be the end.  Still, as I walk with people towards death, I find that some people of astonishingly deep faith are still afraid at the end of their lives, and that other people who do not consider themselves people of faith are okay with the "letting go" that happens at the end.  Despite what we tell ourselves or what we believe, I don't know that belief in a heaven always makes things easier in the end.

But because I have no idea what happens when we die, obviously my faith isn't about that for me. Still, just as I find comfort in feeling a presence of love that is bigger than myself, I believe that presence, too, will follow me into whatever comes next, even if it is "nothingness". And while I have no idea at all what that "next" will be, I also find I don't need to know.  I'm okay with the unanswered questions.  I'm comfortable with not knowing what will come.

Perhaps part of that for me is that I don't cling to life in the same way many other people do.  I see that death is just another part of life. But more than that, I experience life as both wonderful and horrible at the same time. I am deeply grateful for the beauty I have seen, heard, smelled, touched, felt, tasted, and experienced.  But I also see that there is so much pain, so much cruelty and unkindness in this world. This life I have lived to this moment has demanded that I be all I know how to be. I have been challenged again and again to be better than I have been before and I am comfortable with striving to meet those challenges.  But at times I am tired, and the thought of an eventual "rest" is comforting in those moments.

It is interesting to me that my thinking on this seems to have been passed down to my daughter.  She brought up death to me today.  She told me she thinks of death as a worthy adversary, but not an enemy.  Death, she said, was a sparring partner: someone we fight and engage with through our life until, ultimately, death wins.  At that point, she said, she would say to death, "Thank you, good and worthy opponent.  I have done my best, but have been defeated in the end.  I will go with you now into the great unknown."  But then she raised the question: how long and for what do we continue the fight? She talked about specific diseases, wondering if fighting them was worth the effort always, or if sometimes the choice to keep fighting is a choice to let go of quality of life in favor of quantity, and if the fight itself ends up losing us some dignity as well as honor.  I have wondered the same, especially as I've walked with people at the end.  She said that for her, she felt that she would continue to fight as long as there were loved ones who valued her staying.  But I found myself (inside) questioning even this.  Life is a series of losses. Our loved ones will lose us or we will lose them. It is inevitable. So at some point we let go knowing that loves ones will experience the grief of losing us.  How do we decide at what point it is okay to let them go through that pain?

I think life has much to give and much to teach us. We grow, we love, we live. With each breath we experience life differently.  As I look around I have come to believe that everyone has different life lessons and life purpose. One of my life lessons is overcoming judgments.  Every time I judge someone else on anything it comes back at me.  I've come to welcome that life lesson as one I deeply value. I have come to appreciate growing in my ability to be compassionate and understanding of others rather than judgmental.  That is a gift, has been a gift, that will continue to bless me with the opportunities to know people who are very different from myself.  Life purpose?  One of my favorite quotes comes from C.S. Lewis' book Perelandra, "Don't imagine I've been selected for ...(any task)...because I'm anyone in particular.  One never can see, or not till long afterwards, why any one was selected for any calling.  And when one does, it is usually some reason that leaves no room for vanity.  Certainly it is never for what the ...(person...themself) would have regarded as their chief qualifications."

But my sense is that at some point my purpose will be fulfilled, and my life lessons will have been learned or will they have become "beyond learning".  At that point the Universe will move me on. Yes, there are things I would like to do and like to accomplish before that happens.  But I also feel I have experienced a lot already, grown much, and I will accept when I can no longer move towards those dreams and goals I have set for myself.  That is my sense.  So again, I don't fear death.  It is a page in life, the next adventure.  I'm not anticipating it yet, but I believe I will be ready when it comes, as far as one can be.  As Kalhil Gibran says in The Prophet, "you would know the secret of death.  But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?...If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.  For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one."