I think that I’m stuck in the denial stage of grief. It’s not that I deny the fact that my father is dead – his ashes sit in a box on my mantle, surrounded, at the moment, by a few Christmas ornaments and my kids’ picture with Santa and Emilia’s bardo-drawing – it’s that I can’t wrap my head around the fact – is it a fact? – that his death is the end, that his life is over, that I’ll never see or speak with him again. The absoluteness of it all, the finality: I’m having trouble accepting this. I can’t accept this. My heart aches from its stubborn refusal to accept this.
And so I flail about, telling myself stories about ghosts and angels and the afterlife. I struggle to grasp onto my old modes of faith, to the articles of certainty – that there is a heaven, that there are angels, that after death the soul takes flight to a world that is – invisible? eternal? – and thereupon arriving is assured of bliss – that carried me through the deaths of grandparents, acquaintances, beloved pets. I read The Shack while I was at my mom’s last week and found myself unmoved, unconvinced: why should I put in stock in some stranger’s account of his weekend with the Holy Trinity, of the reassurances he received from God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit that his dead daughter was fine, just fine, more than fine, happy, blessed, romping through eternity with Jesus at her side! Why should I be, how could I be, comforted by this when I had no such assurances about my father? What did the experience of the narrator have to do with me? If God invited me to a cottage for the weekend and fed me good food and showed me my Dad communing with Jesus in fields of wildflowers, then sure I’d feel better. Wouldn’t we all? It would be so easy, then.
The point of faith is that we don’t have such assurances. The point of faith is that we believe without such assurances. I know this. I know this.
But I don’t know where my faith is. I want so desperately to find it. I want so desperately to believe, to know, that death is not the end, that it’s not final, that it – my relationship with my father – is not over. We weren’t finished. I didn’t get to say goodbye. There were more conversations to have, more hugs to exchange, more love to express. We weren’t done. He can’t be just gone. He can’t be. He can’t be.
I find myself, too many nights, too many days, reeling from the shock of the realization that he is gone, doubling over, falling to my knees, pressing my fists to my eyes to push back the tears. And invariably, as I reel and fall and struggle, I find myself telling myself that it – this, all this – just isn’t. It just isn’t. It’s not the end. It can’t be. And so I return to the old stories, the articles of faith that used to provide comfort, that could provide comfort still, if I could hold onto them the way that I used to. I tell myself that he must be somewhere. But where? Someone said to me, some months ago, that he’d gone to a better place, and I wanted to grab them by the collar and shake them and make them tell me, where? Where? How do you know? Do you know? Tell me!
I knew that they didn’t know. I was angry that they didn’t know. I am angry that I don’t know. I want so badly to know.
I read an exchange the other day between Jean Vanier and a Canadian writer, about death. Vanier wrote about how he felt when a beloved friend died, how he waited to hear from her, how he waited for some ghostly visit or dream message. “I had hoped that (she) might find a way of communicating with me,” he said. She didn’t. “All I can do,” he concluded, “is trust that she is well.” I too had hoped that my dad might find some way of communicating with me. I tell myself that he might have (I have stories; I am not ready to share them); I look for his messages everywhere, I look so closely that I worry I will miss them for looking. I look so closely, because I don’t quite – I don’t yet? – have the faith that would allow me to just trust.
I don’t know what such faith would look like, exactly. I look to the Bible, I look to the poets. I look to Socrates, who insisted that death should never be feared or mourned, because the soul’s release from the body is a liberation for which it - if it loves wisdom, if it yearns for the goods that the body and the material world, the cave, cannot provide – strives. Socrates would tell me that I shouldn’t be looking for faith, I should be looking for understanding. But my head is muddled because I am distracted by my heart, my aching heart, and at the moment I can see no more light in wisdom than I can in my Children’s Illustrated Bible and my dog-eared copy of The Little Prince.
I think, part of the problem is, I do believe; there’s a way of looking at what I’ve called my denial and seeing it as faith, as a fervent attachment to the belief that this – life, physical existence, the here-and-now – is not it, that this cannot be it, that death is not an eternal nothing, consignment to dust and nothing more. But the skeptic in me tells me that that – that attachment to belief – is just magical thinking, wishful thinking, and for the life of me I can’t tease these apart or bring them together, my insistence upon rational explanation and my desire to be comforted by faith.
I don’t know. I just don’t know. I hate not knowing.
I’ve decided that the only way to confront this is to really, meaningfully explore faith. I’ve explored – I continue to explore – reason; I spent the better part of my adult life plugging away at the study of philosophy, battering back faith with books. Now I want to let down my guard and see if I can find faith again – it doesn’t matter where – and, if I can find it, see if we have anything in common. Part of this undertaking is banal, and biasedly so: I simply want to find some reassurance about death. I want – I actively want, even though I know that I might not find this, that it might not be possible to find this, that my comfort will derive from something other than this – to be reassured that, as Jean Vanier quotes Rabindranath Tagore, ‘death is not the lamp that goes out, but the coming of dawn.’ This desire is so ordinary, so expected, so given. But sometimes the greatest journeys begin as excursions toward and through the ordinary, as expeditions in search of received truths. Maybe. I don’t know.
I don’t really know what I’m doing here. I’m kind of giving in to the flailing. This will serve me ill, or well. We’ll see.
Do you believe in life after death? In anything after death? In some movement of the soul beyond the body, some extension of the spirit beyond the material? And whatever you believe, do you believe it fervently? Or cautiously? Or with with many heavy grains of salt or whatever seasoning it is that tempers flights of fancy, if that is indeed what these are? It’s okay if you don’t believe; I’m interested to hear it. But I also really want to hear if you do. I need to hear if you do. I’ve been afraid to ask. But I want to know.
*apologies to Rilke.