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.
Join us for Coffee Talk at 10 a.m., Saturday, at Indaba Coffee for a discussion entitled, “The Wonder of the End.” CastroLang is a panelist.
Andy CastroLang is senior pastor at Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ. She is deeply committed to civil discourse between individuals and throughout our community; in interreligious conversation, private conversation, intergenerational conversation and yes, even in political conversation. She has been a supporter of SpokaneFaVS since its inception because she supports this creative effort at thoughtful community conversation.
Andy, thank you for sharing such a personal story with us. And thank you for reminding us that it’s OK to talk about the mystery and wonder of death!
I to have witnessed death on multiple times and felt gods presence during and after. It can be as magical and as beautiful as the birth of a child. Leaving me with goose bumps as a witness of one slipping from one life to a better one. Death takes casualties in the sufferings of the living having to reconstruct their lives without the presence of their loved one.
So beautiful, Andy. Thank you.
This past Christmas I was able to return to California to spend the holidays with my family. But much of the visit my equilibrium was off. It was the first time I had returned since my childhood best friend had passed away almost two years ago. Every setting I visited surprised me with vivid memories. It was startling how present in reality each occurrence felt. The joy I remember experiencing would flood back from our middle school, high school, college, and later adventures together… And then the memory would be interrupted, and just as quickly as I had been filled with joy, I would be left with a huge void.
It was confusing to say the least.
You don’t grow up making plans about the lives you are going to live with your friends that involve one of you not being there anymore. And the plan certainly never involves cancer.
Yet, as memory after memory of my best friend visited me over those five days in California, it was almost like she was with me once again… meeting my partner in life: telling stories about how we used to go downtown and get balloon animals made from a teacher before going to the movies and now how I made balloon animals for friend’s kids at their birthday party; hearing about the first nightclub in LA she took me too, and how we don’t do that anymore; the many trips to the Huntington Gardens that reunited us year after year; the past crushes, first loves, and exes that missed the mark…
The joy of the present.
Every memory of my friend was rooted in her unconditional love, faith, and joy for life.
Pastor Andy said, “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.”
My friend may not be with me in body any longer, as she was in our middle school days when she schemed the temporary theft of romance novels from the library to aid in our understanding of the world; but she is definitely with me in spirit today reminding me to continue to love and risk, to spread joy, and work for peace.
For that I give thanks that she can still be present with me in my life.