We, Who Need Such Great Mysteries

January 8, 2010

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.

*deepbreath*

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.

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    { 141 comments }

    Amanda January 10, 2010 at 8:16 am

    My mom’s parents pretty much raised me. I really consider them to be my parents. My grandfather died when I was almost a week overdue with my oldest. The news of his death sent me into labor, and my son was born 2 days later just as I had crazy pregnant woman plans to travel the 6 hours to the funeral. I struggled deeply with my grandfather’s death. I was grandpa’s girl growing up, and I had no closure. At the same time I knew I couldn’t just pick up the phone and call him.

    When my son was about 9 months old, we were visiting my grandma. She was getting worse with the cancer. It was just the baby and I in the living room, and I swear for just a second I saw grandpa sitting in his chair and smiling. I got this overwhelming sense that it would all be ok – for him, for grandma, for all of us.

    Our 2nd son, who was born several years later, looks a lot like my grandpa did as a child, and he doesn’t really look like either my husband or myself. I’ve never said this out loud before, but sometimes when my son smiles, the twinkle in his eyes is just like the way grandpa smiled. The smile took me by surprise the first time I saw it because it’d been so long since my grandpa died that I think of him often, but daily life now goes on as usual.I’m usually a skeptic, but I have no way to explain any of this.

    Caty January 10, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    I think the only way to handle grief is to flail around. Only when you’re flailing can peace come out of nowhere and hit you upside the head. You won’t find it if you’re actively looking for it and you probably won’t notice you’ve found it until after the fact. Hugs and comfort on your journey.

    kgirl January 10, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    Beautiful, sad.
    I promise, promise, promise that sometime, sooner than you will believe, you will be able to remember and it won’t only be pain. The pain will still be there, but eventually, there will also be something else. Acceptance? I don’t know, but you will smile thinking about your dad. And then you’ll realize, eventually, that you smile when you think about him more than you cry. And that when you cry, you might be able to stay upright. Grief will start to sucker-punch you less often
    But it’s still new, it’s still raw.
    The only way out, is through, right?
    (((lots))))

    Sheri January 11, 2010 at 12:34 am

    just wanted to say how much this post moved me. how i wish i’d had the words for such emotions in my deepest moments of grief. be glad for that kind of clarity. be proud of it (even though pretty much everything about grief sucks). the rest, i don’t know about the rest…i think you’re right though. the flailing and the denial are part of faith. possibly ARE faith at its best.

    StacyG January 11, 2010 at 10:35 am

    I believe in God, Jesus, and Heaven. I believe that when we leave here we are reunited with our loved ones who also believed andthat we see Jesus face to face.

    My father shot himself at midnight on New Years 1989/1990. When we went to clean his apartment out, the same apartment where he shot himself I, felt him. I was outside moving boxes and I felt him go past me. He never believed in God, he was not a Christian, so I do not believe that he is in Heaven. I do pray for him and ask God to have mercy on my Dad since he was a product of a very broken home with very broken parents. But, I know he had been told and given the opportunity to be saved but he choose not to know God. I hope when I am called and it is my time to leave this place that I will see my Dad but I can not believe with 100% certainity that I will. I do know that God is just and loving and I trust Him.

    Jamie January 11, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    I lost my mom 4 1/2 years ago and it is the hardest thing I have ever endured. I will tell you that this will all get easier. Will it get easier tomorrow or next week or even next month? Probably not. I have four sisters and we all handled our grief very differently. It was quite interesting, actually. But this will get easier and that is not to say that the grief ends but you learn how to deal with it better. You learn to put it aside and live your life and bring it back out as needed. I know that I will grieve for my mom until the day I die and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

    There are still days when it seems like just yesterday she was calling me on the phone to tell me some funny story about one of the grandkids or something and then it hits me straight in the face that I can’t pick up the phone and call her or stop by and see her.

    As for your question about life after death – I don’t know if I believe in heaven and an actual life after death because I do struggle with this often. But I do know that my mother continues to live to this day because she is living in my heart and soul and I can talk to her and know that she is listening always. Because without her living in me I would not be the person I am today.

    After she died I was sure she would give me some sign that she was still here, and I think she may have on a couple of occasions but if she didn’t that’s OK, too. Because now I KNOW that she is with me.

    Just take this journey one day at a time and don’t force anything that you are not ready for. Don’t force feeling the way you think you should feel and just embrace the way you do feel.

    sixis January 11, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    From the mouth of babes:

    Shown a photo of my m-i-l’s long deceased dog, Abby, my then five year old says, “I remember her.” Thinking she’d confused dogs, we asked her how and she said “I remember her from when I was in Heaven with Grandma Janet doing the boogie.” Grandma Janet passed away years before I met my husband, so . . .

    I hope you find what you are searching for.

    Kelsey January 11, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    I struggle with this often, and I’m afraid I haven’t reached any more conclusions than you have. However, my mother likes to tell a story about when I was younger which gives me some comfort, so perhaps it will you too.

    When I was 3 or 4 years old, my mother and I went to a major chain store’s grand opening in our town. We walked through the doors, and as I was being lifted into the cart, I told her, ‘I used to work here!’
    Of course she laughed, basically patted me on the head, and said ‘Oh yeah? When was that?’ She said she thought, like any parent would, that I was just blurting out things as children do.
    Apparently, I then looked up at her, and said very seriously, ‘Before, you know, when I had my other mum, when I lived in my other house. I worked here, at {name of store}. Before I was yours’
    I was 3 or 4 years old, and had no concept of reincarnation, no knowledge of this store, or its name (I could barely read). My mother swears by this story, as all the evidence she needs of there being something else beyond us, and what we know in this life.
    I don’t know what to make of it; imagination gone wild? Perhaps I had heard them talking about the store, and so knew what it was called? But maybe its possible, because I was so young (so ‘new’ as my grandmother would put it’), that I ‘remembered’ something from a past life?
    Like I said, I don’t know if it comforts you at all, but it kind of gives me hope to think that there was something before this life, and that therefore there could still be something after this life.

    daysgoby January 11, 2010 at 8:53 pm

    Whether I believe or you believe really doesn’t matter so much as that we have peace with what we believe. (This is my stance on most religious matters)

    My great aunt and I used to play hide and seek. She was eighty-something and very fragile, and so she’d flip off the lights and I’d scurry around, trying to hide in the dusky light that came in through the curtains while staying in the same room.

    After she died, I realized whenever I was sad and blue that I would see a lot of light-sensored light poles that would blink on and back off when I drove by.

    I always think ‘Hello, Bertie!’ and know she’s somewhere, smiling.
    .-= daysgoby´s last blog ..in a manner of speaking =-.

    Adrienne January 12, 2010 at 10:39 am

    I’m an atheist. I’ve got two kids, and I’m basically trying to raise them so that they know and understand what I think about god & religion, but I also want them to feel free to explore and experience different religions so they can make up their own minds. With that said, it’s very important to me to be honest with them about things, and when it comes to death it can be extremely… depressing, I guess is a good word for it.

    My youngest daughter (she’s 8) lost her father last year. Needless to say she’s heard a lot of platitudes from others about how he’s ‘in a better place’ or ‘in heaven with the angels now,’ etc. Being an atheist is tough in that regard, because it’s hard even for adults to deal with the fact that when life is over it is just over, and there is nothing else. It’s not exactly something you look forward to expressing to your child, especially when she’s already in pain.

    So here’s how I explained it to her. (I honestly do believe all of this, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to tell her these things – it didn’t seem right to lie to her about stuff like this.)

    I told her that it’s not scary to be dead, and it doesn’t hurt. It’s just like what it was like before you were born.

    I said that everything we are made up of has always been here in the universe in one form or another, and it always will be here. People die, but they live on forever in the hearts and memories of those who loved them and cared for them. They have shared their thoughts and their ideas and their love with other people, and those other people will always carry those things with them. Not only that, but they will pass on a lot of the good things to even more people – that’s how we grow and learn not only as individuals, but as a species.

    So while the physical person we knew and loved might now be gone, a big part of that person – arguably the most important parts – will live on forever.

    sandy January 12, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    I go in and out of phases of reading, from the light trashy escapism stuff, to pieces that make me think and require my mental and emotional participation… I am reading If The Buddha Married by Charlotte Kasl right now, from back to front as usual (don’t know why I do this).

    So much (but not all) of buddhism ‘feels’ good to me. There is little of the organized religion cookie-cutter feelings that I have had when exploring catholicism, born-again-ness, judaism, etc etc. Many of buddhisms main tenets resonate for me. As did this author’s thoughts on death:

    “If we believe a ritual–such as Sunday-morning brunch–defines our relationship and is a measure of our connection, we see the loss of it as a loss of the relationship, as opposed to a time of change…. We seek comfort, security, and reliable rituals as a shield against the inevitable losses that create a stream of melancholy that flows through life. I have this predictable relationship, this marriage, this home, this great sex life, and I want to keep it this way. We also confine ourselves when we seek security with schedules, food, clothes, TV exercise routines, even with meditation and spiritual practice. There is nothing wrong with a schedule, but when we get attached to it and can’t accept change, we get stuck. If we are uneasy all day because we didn’t have our morning ritual, … then we’ve become attached to our ritual. We need to let it go.

    To feel free, we need to remember that all things pass away, and we will too. One of us will probably die before the other, and one of us will be left alone. If we live with an open hand, never grabbing hold of images or moments, we will accept the pangs of loss that inevitably come with change.

    Don’t let the ground under your feet get too solid. Don’t get too secure or caught in your ways, because it puts you to sleep, and from that sleep state a loss can feel jarring or even catastrophic, instead of natural. True stability is rooted in a love that lives within us, a love that flows through all our relationships…

    The deepest practice for accepting loss is to remember that we are all part of the flow of consciousness. We come into this earth in a physical body and we will leave this body behind, and go back to the sea of All That Is–the universal mind or consciousness. We remember that while our minds, emotions and lives pass through us, they are ephemeral, they are not who we are.”

    ………………………………………

    I particularly love the repeated analogy of water, or a flow in life. It feels right. What comes around, flows around…. I don’t know if any of that helps you, but it did help me with my losses, large and small.

    I hope you are feeling some bits of peace and that your heart does not hurt so much all of the time.

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