Recently, a friend of mine wrote to tell me of the death of one of her adult children. She included a copy of the homily she was going to give at his service so that I might know more about him.
One of the things she said in that homily is that she was struck by something he had said to a doctor during one of his struggles. "My imagination quit," he said. And, this mother wondered how it is that one "fixes" a sense of the loss of imagination.
In looking for ways to write some words of comfort to my friend, I found myself writing about my own imagination about death and new life.
In the past, I have said these words softly to grieving people - mostly parents - and only when I thought they could tolerate these imaginative ideas in the the way in which they were intended: for comfort and solace and not as religious nonsensical mumbo-jumbo or simple platitudes that don't make any sense like*:
I Corinthians 10:13)
Or, "She was such a good person, God wanted her home with Him."
Or, "He did what he came here to do and it was his time to go."
Or, my least favorite: "This was just part of God's plan (or God's will)".
I don't think it's so much the words or even the thought - in and of itself - that are necessarily harmful.
It's that simple statements like these are made without any other pastoral thought or theological container.
As if the simple sentence, tossed out naked and alone, is the answer to the complicated and complex realities of life and the mystery of death as well as a balm to the enormous pain of grief.
Nonsensical religious mumbo-jumbo and platitudes, in my experience, can cause more harm than the good that was originally intended.
They speak more about the inadequacies experienced by the pastor than they do about the reality of grieving. Better to keep your mouth shut, I've learned, and hold a hand, nod your head silently, give a warm hug even shed a quiet tear than say something "well intentioned".
And, most of the time, that's exactly what I do.
All that said, I felt strangely moved in this particular instance and with this particular person to write down my thoughts to her. I know to some, they will sound well-intentioned but still nonsensical.
To the delight of my heart, she wrote back to say that she felt moved to share them as part of the program with family and friends who gathered to celebrate his life.
I am emboldened, now, to share them with you. Please hear that I am not claiming this to be an "original thought". You will see the influence of Celtic spirituality on my thinking, but I have no doubt that many of these thoughts are fairly universal.
variety of ancient religions and cultures have considered various aspects of my particular thoughts on life and death.
Perhaps Jung is right. Perhaps his imaginative idea of the "collective unconscious" is more of a reality than we know.
In any event, I have come to understand that the concept of "original thought" is a little trick arrogance plays on the mind.
The expression of these thoughts and their synthesis, however, are mine, gleaned from a lifetime of ministry with others as well as my own attempts to come to terms with the losses in my own life.
So, here's part of what I wrote:
What an amazing lifeforce that was in him! When that sort of power leaves this world, I imagine that it leaves a pretty big tear in the veil - the thin place - between this world and the next. The one redeeming quality about that, near as I can figure, is that it allows some of the souls in the next life to reenter this world.I suspect it is a death of sorts to feel that one's imagination has "quit". I know the quality of my life would be seriously compromised not to be able to imagine something more, something beyond, something greater than what is here and now and who I am in this time and place.
In my imagination, those worlds work like this:
We know from medical research that a fetus, floating around in the placental waters of its mothers womb at about 25-28 weeks, can hear muted voices and sounds and detect changes in the light and temperature outside the womb. It can not connect the voices to people - or yet understand the concept of another person much less its own personhood - or connect sounds to things or comprehend what IS much less what is changing.
As soon as it is born, however, the newborn turns to the voice of its mother because the baby recognizes the sound of her voice which she has vaguely heard through layers of tissue and water. Reality suddenly rushes in and that which was a mystery is now something to be entered into and be held by and loved deeply.
In my imagination, that's what happens at death.
At the moment of death, we are "born into new life" and that which was vague is now clear and lightness and darkness will be the same and we will recognize and understand and comprehend and live into all that has been Mystery and become more deeply an interconnected part of Mystery and love more fully, more mysteriously, in return.
I believe your son is in that new reality. He is living in the fullness of that Mystery. He is held in Love and is able to love more fully in return. And, mysteriously, his wildest imagination is set free to live and thrive beyond anything he could have imagined while he was here.
I can't prove it with a shred of credible evidence, but I know it in my heart to be true.
If that doesn't work for you, that's fine by me. Use whatever works for you.
The thing about grieving is that there is no right way or wrong way. There's just your way.
No one can do it for you. You've got to "walk that lonesome valley, you've got to walk it by yourself. Nobody else can walk it for you. You've got to walk it by yourself." The words to Woody Guthrie's song not only apply to death, but they apply to the process of grieving, as well.
Family and friends and professionals can help guide you and assist you and comfort you along the way.
In your dying, there's hospice. In your grieving there's hospice bereavement as well as grief counseling and support groups.
But, no one can do your dying or your grieving for you.
My imagination helps me to carve out the angels I have set in the tomb of my ideas of death.
Setting them free allows me to soar with them.
I can't prove any of that with a shred of credible evidence, but I know it in my heart to be true.
*PS: If you'd like a good, concise summary of things to say and things NOT to say to someone who is grieving, check out "Ten Best and Worst Things To Say"