Death

I saw a question posed on twitter: “How do you cope with death without God?” and I think I have something to say on the matter. I have gone to over a dozen funerals in my lifetime, and I seem to deal with death well enough. I have experienced one death since I started to think more about God, and I don’t even think God has anything to do with how I cope now, except that I have greater faith that everything is ok. I don’t think you need God for that.

I think one key to processing death, is to give myself permission to feel my feelings, and to recognize my relationship with the deceased person for what it was. This usually means having a good long cry about it. Sometimes the cry has been immediate. One time, I cried for an hour as soon as I found out. Other times it has taken me a week or until the memorial service to actually feel sad in an emotional rather than a rational way. This has little to do with God, and it is a way to cope.

I think one of the most important concepts I have learned in my life is that there are fates worse than death. If you have seen someone dying of something terminal in the hospital, you know this. I believe that all the suffering to be had is here on Earth. Whether or not there is an afterlife (I still don’t believe in heaven or hell) death must be the absence of all earthly suffering. My parents once told me when someone dies, we are sad not for them, but for ourselves.

I guess another slightly related thought is that the death is a part of life. It is inevitable, and has a purpose in our little ecosystem we call Earth. That’s not terribly comforting, but it can help put things in perspective.

I also believe that when people die they aren’t completely gone from our lives. I have had very vivid dreams of them. I like to do things that would make them happy. I tell stories about them. I keep small mementoes that remind me of them. I pray to them as much as I pray to anyone else, and I ask them to give me their strength or whatever I think they could help me with.

Most of the deaths I have experienced have been the end to a long time of suffering, or after a long and fulfilling life, and those deaths are much easier to process from a logical point of view, though it has no effect on how it is emotionally (my emotional attachment to that person dictates that).

The really difficult ones are young people, or anyone who was taken in some sort of way that could have been prevented. I have known two people my own age who died. I have not known any children, though I hear of it every once in a while. I guess those are the ones where religion and faith come in. It’s not logical. It’s not fair. It’s not ok. How do we get past that? I don’t know. I think that if I ever had to deal with that God would be at the forefront of how I dealt with it. I get a much better sense of comfort from wallowing in God’s love, than I do from thinking about how the life cycle of the earth works.

Forgiveness

“A hero’s journey is not from weakness to strength. The real hero’s journey is from strength to weakness.”  – John Green

One of the main things that took me to church was the hope that I would learn how to forgive myself, and get better at forgiving others. Why did I need to forgive? I had a relationship with someone that was eating at me. I hadn’t handled things as I should have, and it had really negative consequences. It ate at me every day and I felt so bad. I tried to apologize, without results. I wanted that person to forgive me. I thought that if they would forgive me I would feel fine, but we never connected again.

Through counselling, I realized that  I had to forgive myself for my actions. When I can’t change my situation, or the people around me, I have learned that I have to change myself. I had to accept that I had done my best at the time, and I would learn from that experience, and handle things differently when a similar situation came along again. That left me with, How do I forgive myself?

When I was little, my brother and I would fight. If I did something bad I would have to go to my room until I was ready to apologize. Then, I had to say “Sorry” to him and he would have to say, “It’s ok,” as an acknowledgement of the apology and a sign of forgiveness, to me in return. This went back and forth as a daily occurrence. When someone said sorry, and meant it, you would have to forgive them. That was the extent of any formal education in forgiveness that I remember.

My counselor was helpful, but couldn’t give me the exact steps and formula that I wanted for forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a popular idea in our culture. We value individuality, forgetting that we are all connected. We work so hard to protect ourselves from negative feelings in our relationships, but those negative situations still happen and we just push them down and ignore them. Pretending everything is ok for appearances is not helpful.

I knew of no secular ways to learn this skill. I thought that if anything would be able to help me, it would be that feeling of being loved that I sometimes got from God. If I were to encourage and develop that within myself, I would know how to forgive, and I would learn how to avoid the situations that would require it later. I also knew that I needed to hear it said to me. I needed to hear the words, “You are forgiven.” (Forgiveness is a perlocutionary speech act, like promising – the utterance of the phrase creates the action.)

So I ended up at church. We think God feels the same way about us as we do about ourselves. This is not true. God loves us unconditionally. God loves us when we make mistakes. God loves us, even when we do not love ourselves. God gives us the grace to love ourselves. I can’t come up with the grace within myself, and so it comes from outside. Maybe after enough practice, it will come easily from within myself, or through God. I don’t know. There are people out there who can remember that they are enough as they are without God, but I am not one of them. I need to hear and feel it from someone else.

I know that my boyfriend and my family and my friends love me. I can tell myself that they just love what they see. There are those parts that I am ashamed to share. I tell myself that they would not love me if they knew, but God knows everything, and still loves me. I am working on being able to share myself wholly with those who I love, and not feel shame for the way I am. I can do this because there is God’s grace in everyone, and I tell myself that they will still love me. I cannot bear to be bare, but that’s what it takes to complete the hero’s journey.

So I just practice being weak, embracing vulnerability, embracing my imperfections. Realizing that it is powerful to be weak and humble.

The only way to get rid of the negative feelings is to lean into them, embrace and deal with them. The fear is worse than what you fear always. Fearing weakness is always worse than being weak.

Forgiveness is hard, but the alternative is harder.