The friend who gave me this word––death––did not exactly give it to me. Lydia wrote me that she had been wondering what I believed about death, and I decided to try to respond by taking on the word. Try is the operative word, because what can I possibly say about something so literally life-altering for the one who dies and the ones who are left? In any space and especially in so small a space as this.
The most basic truth is that death is a mystery, no matter how often or how close we get to it. What do we really know for sure? I knew death when my little sister died when I was thirteen. I faced death when I tried to end my own life. I have had close friends die under various circumstances. I have worked in hospice and prepared the bodies of the dead, and still, it is a mystery, just as love is a mystery.
My friend, at the end of her query offered a Spanish saying, "Se acabaron, y solo la tristeza les da vida," which roughly translates, "They have finished, and only sorrow gives them life." I happen to know that Lydia has been deeply affected recently by the deaths of dear loved ones. This saying suggests to me that she is pondering less about death itself and more about what happens after death.
Almost thirty years ago one of my closest friends died of AIDS-related complications. At one time ours was the sort of friendship that caused us to double up in helpless laughter as we walked the streets of San Francisco. At other times we shared some of the deepest spiritual conversations. We thought it would always be that way. Then our relationship underwent some cuts and abrasions that we'd been unable or unwilling to heal. This went on for a few years prior to his death, as we ended all communication. Kevin, a mutual friend, arranged for us to have a phone conversation between a coastal California town and Glen's deathbed in New Zealand. A few hours before we were to talk, Kevin called to tell me Glen had died. I couldn't stop crying, as Kevin simply listened. I was mourning my loss, Glen's loss, and the world's loss, but I was also mourning the missed opportunity to make things right between us.
What happened afterwards, though, touches on that profound Spanish saying. I felt Glen's presence with me and around me so strongly for the next three days, and during that time, it seemed that everything sharp and painful between us was healed. I don't recall if I spoke any words to him like, "I'm sorry." I think of it now as a wordless time of healing, and I was intensely grateful to Glen for staying on this plane, so we could make things round.
I tell this story to say that I do think that there is life after death. I believe that I experienced a little piece of what Glen's life was after his death. I have also, in my attempts to better understand death, read many people's accounts of their life-after-death experiences. First I read Life After Life by Raymond A. Moody. More recently I read Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's On Life After Death, recounting her experiences as a physician attending children with terminal illnesses. These books and the stories in them have bolstered my belief that death is not the end of life but a transition to something else––something we have an inkling of, but that is mostly a mystery. This belief is what drew me to ask Wayne Dale Matthysse if I could repost his mini-essay that I called "Form." And it was that essay that inspired my friend Lydia to ask her question about what I believed. It's this belief that draws me to the expression, "She walked on," the way many of my Native friends describe the death of someone loved and respected. They walked on to their next life experience.
I'm not sure it's our sorrow that keeps our loved ones alive after they've died. Perhaps it's joy, which is not to be confused with happiness. Joy is made up of contrastive elements––happiness, yes. But also sorrow, thrill, fullness, emptiness, pain, delight. Joy is the stuff of all the parts of Life, so why should it not be joy that keeps our loved ones alive? I once read this quote from an anonymous source at the funeral of my very good neighbor: "Joy is the elixir of life. Joy is what enables us to remember all our dead loves with a smile for what they gave us rather than only the agony of losing them."
The word death was brought to you by Lydia Lopez, painter and writer, Cheyenne's third grade teacher, and my former colleague.
For more thoughts on life after death, you may enjoy my allegory of judgment and the unexpected in the afterlife, "Surprised by Paradise ,"published in [Spaces]