The Final Goodbye
My day job brings me into the lives of people during moments of crisis, personal tragedy, turmoil, and loss. Both day and night I receive calls informing me that someone has died. The death is sometimes expected, sometimes sudden, but always world-shattering for those who grieve. Death leaves the living broken and incomplete. I know this from personal experience and from the voices of people with whom I share words before and after the final goodbye.
I used to think a lot about the idea of an afterlife, imagining judgments, reunions, and beatific visions. Nowadays, with death having become for me more embodied reality than distant abstraction, I reflect less on the hereafter, if there will be such a thing, and more on the moment of death itself, both for those who pass and those who witness. I still say words to my deceased daughter and picture her hearing me, but usually, when my thoughts turn to her, I recall and relive the hours she shared with us. Memory and grief have become my expressions of faith, as I seem to have mostly left behind imaginatively describing to myself some future heavenly hope. Consequently, faith has ceased to be a comfort to me. Death has made my faith anew; my heart tells me to remember and to remain in love, to love into death, not because all will ultimately be well, but because a life, though lost, deserves devotion.
I have a strange relationship with death, having been exposed to it quite frequently growing up through the passing of a good number of aged relatives.
Which is very different from the passing of children or siblings or parents, as far as an experience goes. But when you go to a funeral of someone you know very well once every nine months or so going on seven years running during your formative years… it made an impression upon me. It became very internal.
I never know what to say to someone else who is going through this process. It’s one sphere of human communication at which I’m just very limited.
I don’t recall attending any funerals when I was young. The first I can remember was for the father of a friend in college. I didn’t know the deceased, but the occasion left an impression on me.
This is wonderfully put, Kyle. I spend part of my days doing similar work, when I am needed. It does change what death it, well it did for me anyway. Like you, I have a strange relationship with it. For me, it is always hard to put words to it. Thanks for saying what you have here.
Thank you, Fran. If I may ask (please don’t feel pressure to answer), do you find yourself emotionally invested or detached when working with families of loved ones? I tend to be detached, myself, but also sympathetic, having been in their shoes. It’s a strange combination.
Kyle, that is how I experience it and it is an interesting combination, strange indeed. Yet it is very beautiful and I tend to understand it as a gift.
I hope you do not mind that I link to a piece I once wrote, where I describe my introduction to some of these things. Feel free to read it or not, but it has a lot to do with how I was formed. I hope that the hyperlink works, if not – http://randomactsofmomness.com/the-best-gift-my-mom-gave-me-by-fran-rossi-szpylczyn/
Thank you for sharing, Fran. A lovely piece.
I’ve only actually been present once when someone died. It was my father. It was expected–he had been in hospice care for several months. It changed the way I look at death, although I can’t really say how.
I’m sorry to hear this, Pierre. How long ago was this?
Thanks for the condolences. It was actually about five years ago.
Oddly, I guess, the deaths of four relatives, including my dad, in one year, actually served to strengthen my faith in the reality of an afterlife, and subsequent deaths, including my Mother’s , have affirmed it. I was not at the bed-side for any of them (although I have been there as physical life was extinguished for many animals), but the certainty that their lives go on even as their physical lives have ended is as sure to me as the certainty that there is oxygen in the air. Although I frequently try to imagine what their deaths were like, I don’t try to envision their experiences in their lives after death. I suppose that’s why I don’t find descriptions of it particularly abstract. I mainly focus on the idea that their deaths are not “final” losses any more than graduating high school was for the people that I knew there. The loss in my own life stings of course, but my faith that I will see these people again does comfort me in those times. I know that they had their own lives to run as I do, and the physical intersection of our lives was incidental to both courses. Love is eternal however.
but the certainty that their lives go on even as their physical lives have ended is as sure to me as the certainty that there is oxygen in the air.
Your certainty in the latter presumably comes from its empirical verifiability; what accounts for your certainty in the former?
My faith, of course.
Okay, but how does your faith give you certainty?
(I ask because mine doesn’t.)
One might easily ask what “certainty” is. I’m not a logical positivist so, for me, certainty isn’t always about having empirical evidence to a certain point of confidence (although it can be for issues such as climate change that are explicitly material in nature). Certainty, for me, also flows from accepting certain premises as true. For instance, I am certain that representative democracy is the best, most just form of government. There’s no way of empirically testing that. Certainly other forms of government are more efficient or more stable, such as dictatorships or authoritarian one party systems. But these violate a premise that I have accepted as true-that people should be the ultimate arbiters of their own fate. Representative democracy balances the need to allow people to determine their own fate with the need for collective action for the common good the best in my estimation. So I am certain that it is.
Even in science, certainty doesn’t preclude doubt. Scientific certainty is never about having no possibility that the current most favored explanation is wrong. Remember the neutrino experiment of last year that seemed to have conflicted with Einstein’s Relativity Theory? Scientists didn’t accept it immediately (or modify their belief in relativity) but they did give it enough credence to NOT immediately reject it on the basis of its seeming conflict with relativity.
My faith gives me certainty because I have accepted certain premises as true, some of which grow out of others. First and foremost is that people are generally capable of accurately recording their experiences and organizing their affairs. This is what gives me certainty that the Bible is historically accurate enough to trust that what people have recorded as their own experiences actually happened to them. Thus, I can trust that Christ really is who He is presented as being in the Bible.
I have to get up from writing now. I can continue later.