Recently I went to visit my grandparents with my father. My grandfather has the early stages of dementia. My grandmother is the older of the pair and we always thought she would be the one to decline first but life decided to surprise us, as it will. Seeing them together after so long put their decline into sharp relief and brought home the fact that within the decade both of them will likely be gone.
This is not the first time that death has poked her head into my families business, we lost my mother and my maternal grandmother less than 5 years ago and my great grandmother passed when I was in High school.
On the long drive home, I had a discussion about what happens after death with my father. Candidly we compared notes, me with my views on the otherworld and his views of oblivion. We didn’t try to convince each other but just discussed how death had affected our lives. It was an enlightening conversation on many levels.
Explaining something to someone else is probably the best way to discover what you truly know or believe. Conversations or the act of teaching forces you to examine what is in your mind in detail, finding all the fallacies and maybe gaining new perspective or depth.
Self-assurance, to me, has always been a kind of cloak that some people wear better than others. It can hide many insecurities. I had always believed or just never really stopped to think about what would be hiding under my own father’s cloak. As his child, I always had him on a sort of pedestal. He hasn’t fallen exactly, my point of view has changed as I grew up and could stand on the same level with him.
He hasn’t changed but what he allows me to see has. It was a little disconcerting but also interesting to grasp that my father also had thoughts about death.
I am very sure that what we have in this world isn’t the end of it. In that way, I am more surefooted than he is about this particular topic. When my father spoke of what he expected after death, he made clear that his mind was at war with his gut instinct. He is a born-again Christian and so, intellectually, believes that when he passes from this world his soul will go beyond to his heavenly reward. On the other hand, his true instinctual belief is that there is nothing beyond what we can physically experience and that when we die we cease to exist completely.
To me, it is not a comforting thought that this is the only life we have and there is no real reason for us to be but if that is what he finds most logical than I cannot fault him for that. That would be highly hypocritical considering how accepting he has been of my own choices, religious and otherwise.
Death and dying are a part of life, we Americans kind of forget that because of the machine that is our medical system but our ignorance doesn’t make it any less true. It’s also a part of life that we as pagans, in particular, are somewhat unprepared for. We may have the texts that give us hints about what happens after but what do we do when we or someone close to us is actually going through that transition?
When my mother died and I was still a baby pagan that hadn’t really considered what the shift my belief structures would eventually cause, I looked to friends and family for comfort. The Christian church held little comfort in their doctrines for me but the absence of built-in support within my new faith was jarring.
For a whole year, I was stuck in a sort of limbo, waiting for someone to tell me what I should be doing or to give me permission to feel. My friends and grovemates were supportive, and I truly thank them for how they tried to bridge the gap. It was a difficult time and I don’t know if having scripture or just some words to hear would have made it easier but it could not have made it worse.
Knowing is better than wondering and worrying. IMHO.
Death cafes are a newer idea, a type of laid back and safe place to discuss death, that plays a role in normalizing death in the public sphere. Death Doulas or Death Midwives are also something that is growing in popularity. I find it very comforting that I will be able to have someone there while I am dying beyond the medical staff who are ill-equipped to deal with it on all levels.
Its heartbreaking to see the statistics of how many people die alone in a hospital but the future seems brighter. we are moving away from seeing death as a taboo topic for the living or the dying.
So, what can we do to help our communities better prepare for the inevitable?
One thing we can do right now is write down how you want your funeral to be carried out or at least give it some thought, maybe even begin discussing it with your partner.
Another idea is to do away with the platitudes. I cannot tell you how awful it was to hear a dozen people tell me that my mother was in a better place. It just made me angry and upset. I would have preferred someone that was willing to hold me as I wept or just a silent acknowledgment that what I was feeling was okay.
Words are hard in the best of times but when someone is experiencing a loss they can be impossible. When words are hard, my advice is to not force it. Holding space silently can be one of the most comforting and loving things you can do for someone who is grieving. It gives them space to feel and speak when they are ready.
I think the best thing we can do for our communities today is being open to conversations about death and accept that not everyone has the same views about the afterlife. Just being there can be a powerful, moving thing.