Recently, I read an opinion piece in the New York Times “What I Believe About Life After Death” by Anglican priest, Tish Harrison Warren, which she wrote following the tragic death of a fellow Anglican priest and his 22-year-old son in an automobile accident. “I hate death. I have never made my peace with it and I never will. I don’t want to live in a world where everything good suddenly ends. Both had so much left to live.” Death, she said, represented “a journey interrupted”, much like Jesus’ death when he still had so much more he could have “explained, healed, and done.”
The column got me thinking that I don’t fear death as much as I used to. Maybe because I’m older now. Who am I to complain, living seventy years when others die so young? Or, perhaps, because I have seen loved ones die—my husband, my parents, my brother, my best friend who has Alzheimer’s and suffers a living death—death seems the natural order of things. Like leaves falling to earth in a blaze of glory, autumn’s poignant beauty is, after all, a celebration of death. As poet Emily Dickinson wrote: “The maple wears a gayer scarf, the field a crimson gown.
I’m a Christian. Our faith offers hope in the belief of life after death. And as Warren writes, we have good reason to believe this because of “the witness of the disciples and others who lived and died for their claim that they (and somewhere around 500 others) had seen Jesus alive again and spoken to and touched him.”
The untimely death of my husband from cancer at the age of forty-seven forged much of my own thoughts about life and death. John and I were planning a 15th wedding anniversary to Italy, we had two young sons and everything to live for. Although twenty-seven years have passed, memories remain of the day he lay dying and spoke of angels approaching down a corridor of light. Was it the morphine? Who am I to say? I also remember the day before she died, my mother calling her parents, her hands reaching above her head as if she could see and grasp them.
A couple weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to an online Jungian lecture called “Aging Soulfully.” Swiss psychoanalyst and philosopher Carl Jung’s theory of life and death promotes aging as a journey toward a final destination. Death teaches us in the second half of life to let go of our egos and material possessions and give up control of others.
Hindus believe in reincarnation. When I traveled to Nepal, I saw priests in saffron robes carrying wrapped corpses to funeral pyres above the Bagmati River, leading to the Ganges. As the smoke curled skyward, the spirit was released from the body to live again in another living being.
As Advent approaches, Christians enter a state of longing, an expectation of light in the darkness. If death is darkness, then light reminds us something extraordinary can and does happen on a cold winter’s night. Just as leaves fall to the ground and the barren branches of winter bud anew in spring, life and death form a paradoxical partnership, an interconnected dance of light and dark. Why did someone tragically die before their time? Why do we have to die? Comfort, at least for me, lies in believing there exists that corridor of light toward a reunion with loved ones.
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. … When I am in the world, I am the Light of the World.” John 8:12
Susan G. Weidener is the author of two memoirs and a novel, and a former journalist with The Philadelphia Inquirer. She offers writing workshops and teaches memoir and fiction and facilitates the Women’s Writing Circle, the second Saturday of the month at the Chester Springs Library. A member of St. Mark’s Honey Brook for seven years, Susan lives in Chester Springs. She blogs at: http://www.susangweidener.com/