Today is a sad anniversary for me. Eight years ago, my Mom died after years of illness. Dealing with grief is a complicated and difficult process. One of the things that haunted me about her final days was she reached out to me from her hospital bed, after fading in and out of lucidity, and she had real terror in her eyes. She said to me “I need you to pray for me”. I didn’t know how to respond. I gave her some assurance. I’m not even sure what I said. But I was startled and angered by her terror.
To me, she was a person who was forever giving and sacrificing herself and her needs to her family, to her church, and even to relative strangers. She could be judgmental in her opinions, in line with her sheltered, religious upbringing, but she didn’t turn those attitudes into malicious actions against people.
I was angry that after years of devotion to her faith, a faith whose key is a promise of salvation, that her reward was not peace, but fear. My mother, my hero, my treasure was rewarded for her years of devotion with terror. It has taken me a long time to get past that.
I hope that my Mom is in a “better place”. It’s what she wanted fiercely. And I want her to have her hope fulfilled. I want her to be comforted by her God and saints and the virtuous people she has known. I want it for her because it’s what she wanted.
The truth is, I am agnostic about what happens to us after death. I don’t know to what extent our personality and identity remains after death. I have encountered many spirits, but never one that I know was a human who lived and died. My spiritual path veered away from my Catholic upbringing when I was in my early teens, and I haven’t believed in the Christian ideas of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory for a long, long time. I have never felt like I need Jesus to “save” me.
In ancient Rome, there were various stories about the afterlife. The dead cross the River Styx. They drink from the River Lethe for forgetfulness. Heroes went to the Elysian Fields, good citizens went to the Plains of Asphodel, and those who offended the gods were sent to Tartarus to be worked over by the Furies. It doesn’t seem like most people took these stories very literally or seriously. Culturally, the Romans seemed more focused on the life here and now than on seeking any reward afterward. At least that is the view that we get from the writers, but of course they represent a more privileged part of society.
Christianity was one of several popular religious movements in the later Republic and early Imperial period, including Orphism, Mithraism and the cult of Isis, which offered promises that initiates would have an advantage in the afterlife. Christianity, in particular, started off as popular among slaves, the poor, and women – in other words, those whom Roman society kept away from many of the advantages of Roman culture. The idea of a reward in the afterlife must have a greater appeal if your current life is pretty miserable.
Perhaps it is a part of my privilege today that I don’t think a lot about what happens when this life has ended. I do live a middle class lifestyle in one of the wealthiest societies the world has known. I have the means and freedom to enjoy many pleasures, and I worry about few necessities. Not everything goes my way, certainly, and I have people around me who struggle with health problems, poverty, discrimination issues, among other things. If I am honest with myself, my advantages are somewhat precarious. Without a job, I could lose my home within months. Health is notoriously unpredictable. Accident or illness could change my fortunes very quickly.
But I am still focused on my life as I live it – the pleasures, the challenges, the relationships with people, other beings around me, the natural world, the human-built world, intellectual questions, ethical matters, spiritual meanings. Death is a part of that, but one that is always mysterious. I am repelled by unnecessary suffering and try to avoid causing it, but death still comes to all of us, as humans, as living creatures.
Many Pagans that I know use the phrase “What is remembered lives” as a tribute to those who have died and an exhortation and comfort to those who are grieving. I love this idea. It is a concrete way for someone to live on and a reminder that through relationship and connection, we can extend life beyond death. So memory is a powerful tool that we have to keep alive some part of our loved ones. We can tell stories. We can keep photos and mementos. We can recognize what within ourselves is shaped by those who are gone.
It doesn’t require any beliefs about what happens afterward. It’s a practical instruction on how to value the one who is lost. It doesn’t require us to take comfort in the unfathomable will of a deity.
It only requires us to hold what was special and important about that person who was once with us.
Today, just like every day, I will remember.
I hadn’t intended it, but I have followed Anomalous Thracian’s call to write about topics starting with the letter D this month. John Beckett wrote a great post about Discipline. “Death” wasn’t actually on the list, so I hope it’s not a problem if I add it.