My first conscious memory of pondering an afterlife came at the death of my profoundly disabled, brain damaged older brother. He died at 13 years old, slipping away one winter night from pneumonia. I was 5, maybe 6 years old.
My mother sat me down on my bunkbed and said that Peter, at last, could run and play like other children, for he was in Heaven with God. I was pretty relieved for him, since he had never enjoyed mac and cheese, or kick the can, or a game of Go Fish. He could not walk, or feed himself, or see. I knew my parents and older siblings were distressed but I figured he was in a much better place, though I didn’t know exactly where Heaven was.
By the time my mother died many years later, our talks about life after death had evolved. I was her grown up daughter, the minister, and we read theology together.
As she succumbed to spreading cancer, she unfailingly believed that she would be forgiven for the wrong she had done in her life, and that, when she beheld her maker, she would know completeness, after the broken and incomplete days of her life were behind her. She particularly liked the image of the creator saying, “I see you are a little empty there, let me help you, let me fill you up.” And she would be filled with joy, and peace, and compassion and understanding. And even more love, even more than the great love she had already shared with so many throughout her life.
My understanding of death, and of life beyond death continues to evolve as I live my life and am privileged to be with people as they prepare to die, and as they die. I listen and what I learn is that death is unique to each one, and that it is a sacred time, a time of mystery and awe.
Some deaths are very painful and very sad. Some are quiet. Some are bitter. Some are a relief. Just as I believe the work of a midwife and doctor is a privilege, for they participate in birth, so I believe death is a unique time, and for those who are with the dying, there is much to learn.
Our fear of death stymies our living and our learning. We whisper in secret what we experience when I believe it should be stated clearly in the light of day.
Our culture of harsh realism, of cynicism and narcissism stifles the conversation about lessons learned with death. Lessons that might remind us to make every day count, to do more good, to love and risk more, to spread more joy, work harder for peace. And lessons that tell us we need not fear death, that death is not the end. Nothing is wasted. The messages that seep through the darkness of not knowing what lies beyond the door of death tell us there is more; more light, more growth, more peace, more opportunity to be our truest selves and know our place in the universe.
Yes, let us speak of death. For it is a powerful teacher of life.
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