Beyond, written by Catherine Wolff and published earlier this year, presents an exceptional history of the various beliefs about death and the afterlife. For eons, humans have labored to understand and ritualize the mysteries of coming to life and leaving it. Beyond is a scholarly but readable primer for anyone interested in exploring the many theories about the afterlife. For all the scientific inquiry and poetic expressions, there is no universally held theory that explains death or confirms an afterlife. Such a definitive answer would not make loss easier, for it is the loneliness of grief, not the reality of death that causes us to fear it, avoid it and mourn it.
Amid the mysteries and theories, what I do know is that a person is only gone from this earth when we forget them. When we no longer remember the joy we felt when we were with them, or the comfort we had in trusting them, or the simple pleasures of everyday life with them, then they are gone. When the treasured stories have lost their spark, when we no longer adorn our homes with our loved one’s photos, when we forget how they loved us, then they are gone.
The journey of grief requires we establish a lasting relationship with one who is no longer here in the body. As we make our way through the sadness and loneliness, we come to live in the presence of their spirit. We do not love the people in our lives exclusively for their physical presence. We love them whether we are with them or not, indeed we often live by the maxim that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” When a person dies, we can take our first step forward by reflecting on the ways we held them during times of physical separation. In grief work, we benefit from remembering these, while remaining open to the interconnectedness we have with people in spirit, living and deceased.
Memories, stories, and personal items, hold the vision, truth and emotions of a relationship. Each year in our house as we decorate the Christmas tree, we renew a fifty-year journey as each ornament signifies a place visited, a person remembered, or an event shared. Every relationship has its stories, some humorous, some momentous and others simply good stories, these stories reveal a moment in time that uncovers the landscape of an eternal relationship. Objects can also stimulate the presence of a loved one who has passed. Many years ago, a friend who was a genius at crewel made a doll for me. I treasure it for its beauty, but more importantly, when I look at it or hold it, my friend joins me in the present. Though she has been dead for more than a decade, I still experience how very much she loved me to have put so many hours into this gift.
For now, we do not conclusively know what lies beyond this life, someday we will. Until then, whatever your belief, loss can be painful and prevailing, so be gentle with yourself and keep your loved one alive in whatever way is best for you.