My mom recently told me about working as a home economist in remote Newfoundland outports in the 60’s. A woman pulled her aside one day, and in all seriousness, asked her where heaven was.
All her life, this woman had believed that God was a man with a white beard who lived above the clouds, which is exactly what she’d been taught in school and church. She tried to live a good life so she would go there when she died. The story of heaven gave security and structure and meaning to her life, and helped her to face death - for herself and for those she loved.
Then one day the woman’s granddaughter came home from school and told her that heaven was not up in the sky. That there was just more sky, and no welcoming choir of angels to receive the dead. The woman was absolutely distraught. She was in tears with my mom, not knowing where she would go when she died. Not knowing where her dead loved ones were if they weren’t where she had believed them to be.
This is such a moving story for me, because it demonstrates how much we need maps for our lives and our deaths. The map this woman had built her life on had been destroyed in an instant, and she didn’t have another one to take its place.
It’s a particularly stark example, but I think it also reflects mainstream cultural attitudes towards death. Most of us don’t have a functional map of what happens when we die, or at least not one that helps us to allow and move towards it.
We’ve accepted the story of the light switch: it’s on then it’s off. We exist and then we don’t. And I believe that’s partly why we have such a fear of aging and death, because at a deep, existential level, we feel what this woman felt. That there’s nothing there, that we’ll be lost. But we’ve grown up with the thought, so it’s not such a shock to our systems as it was for her.
Do you have a map of what happens when you die? Where has it come from? Does it bring you comfort?
For the hospice nurses and other bedside support folks, do you find that those with an intact religious or cultural map seem to move more easily towards their death?
I think these are all critical questions as we re-invent what it means to die in these times. I look forward to your thoughts.