I wish death happened like it used to in the old movies. You know, those deathbed scenes were everyone gathers around, makes amends, say their good-byes and drift off with visions of God and the angels dancing in their eyes. But it rarely does. Deathbed conversions are few and far between.
When death approaches or has taken place, most people live their faith, their beliefs (or their disbelief) in a God or the hereafter the same as they have the rest of their lives. If they believe in some creative force that is more than what we can see, they continue to do so through sickness and loss. If they believe God has a plan for everything that happens and that Jesus is their savior, they continue to do so until their dying breath. If someone feels that there is no God, supreme being or spiritual meaning for anything on earth, they hold on to that belief even after their loved one’s body is buried deep in the ground.
A friend once told me, as their mother was dying, that no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t make herself believe the same as her mother had all her life. She desperately wished she could. She wanted to understand and connect with her mother before she passed on in a way she had never been able to. She said that for awhile she pretended to believe as her mother had, but she knew she was pretending. She even went to her mother’s church and read the same readings and scriptures, without any change of heart.
A client I met with for several months repeatedly expressed her frustration that her husband had never believed in God and she couldn’t understand how he had gone to his death without accepting God into his life. For over forty years she had tried to convert him and get him to go to church, always believing that someday he would see the spiritual light.
A member of my family had an understandably difficult time when my uncle killed himself and sincerely worried about his soul, wondering if he was suffering as much after death as he had during life. They prayed that God would forgive my uncle and provide the serenity that had always seemed to be just beyond his reach. The only way they could make sense out of the tragedy was to believe that he was “in a better place”. They had always believed that God provides happiness and peace and used that faith to provide personal comfort, safety and meaning.
Belief in God, a Great Spirit, Nature, Jesus or some other religion or spiritual path, doesn’t mean that people don’t question, argue, bargain or get angry with that in which they believe.
A colleague of mine was enraged when her daughter was killed in a car accident. She felt like her religious tradition had lied to her. “How could a loving God let such a bad thing happen to such an innocent child?! How could He take her at such a young age?!” She still believed in God, but couldn’t make sense out of what had happened. “Somebody was responsible for this!” she said. “There has to be a reason!” She prayed to God for an answer. “But all I could hear was myself talking to the empty air,” she explained. “It took me years of asking ‘why’, begging for an answer, before God gave me the strength and understanding to live with not knowing.”
Another client blamed God for allowing her abusive ex-husband to survive and live with his alcoholism, while her hard-working, kind friend died from liver cancer. She overflowed with unanswerable questions. “Why didn’t that son-of-a-you-know-what get this awful disease instead? Why does my friend have to deal with this? What did she ever do? Why? Why? Why?” Her friend continued to work as long as possible and remained true to her sweet loving self until her death a year and a half later.
As in most sweeping statements of finality there are exceptions. Occasionally someone reacts to death and loss differently than they have lived the rest of their lives.
A woman I interviewed a few years ago said she made a bargain with God and it changed her life. As the car she was driving hit a side rail on the freeway and begin rolling over and over she said, “God, if you let me live to raise my young son I’ll dedicate my life to you.” She had never believed in God and didn’t know where that had come from, but she said she heard a voice answer her that said, “Yes”. She survived the accident, continued raising her son as a single parent and never forgot her promise. Though she had always seen herself as a selfish person, she started thinking of others and became involved in a number of charities. When her son was killed ten years later she never wavered from her promise and used her son’s death to inspire her to do even more of “God’s work”.
Death and grief can crack open our hearts. They can change our perceptions of how we see the world. They can wake us up to the reality of pain and suffering in ways that we never thought possible. Within the midst of such grief and pain we can reach out for comfort, look within for guidance and find compassion and forgiveness from our religion, community or sense of personal responsibility.
Mourning can be a catalyst for clarifying our values and deepening our understanding, but it doesn’t mean we will throw our beliefs out the window or change our spiritual faith. We need not despair over our usual conditioned human response to loss. There’s always an old movie with a good deathbed scene we can find at the video store, take home and imagine ourselves saying our good-byes, making last minute amends and being carried off to the heavens!