Losing grip on eternity, Part 3: Grief and Finality

This post was originally posted on July 29, 2015. It was re-uploaded as part of the Archive Restoration Project.

“Imagining an afterlife can tend to mend a broken heart,
And with someone dead, it’s a way of coping with loss,
But I don’t need you out there somewhere if I have you in my thoughts.” –Eyedea, Hay Fever

How do a person’s beliefs about the afterlife impact their judgments, decisions, and actions?

In my experience with Christianity, it can completely destroy the grieving process.

There are, as you may have heard, five stages of grief. They don’t always happen in this order, and they’re quite nuanced. (1) denial and isolation, (2) anger, (3) bargaining, (4) depression, and (5) acceptance.

The very last stage is acceptance.

This was on my mind when I attended the funerals of several people in the past few years. People would stand up and say trite, tired things like “She’s in a better place now,” and “We’ll see him again someday.”

When dealing with death, of course nobody would dare consider that their loved one is in hell. This discussion is about heaven.

My question is this: how can you experience acceptance – the final closure in the five stages of grief – when “someday” is vaguely painted over the loss?

At the beginning of 2014, I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I remember reading articles about the evils of The Golden Compass ten years prior – “Worse than Harry Potter!” my favorite magazines warned. Pullman was writing a story from an atheist perspective, because, as he put it, C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia was just religious propaganda.

I’m going to spoil the last book here, so if you don’t like that, go read them. If you don’t mind having books spoiled, read this post and then go read the trilogy. They’re among the best fantasy books I’ve ever read.

So the final book, The Amber Spyglass, features two kids who get lost in the underworld. It’s not really heaven or hell, though, it’s just an afterlife place. Everyone who has ever died is there, and they’re tormented by Harpys, who are similar in function to the Echthroi. Religious martyrs are there, who died horrible deaths for hope of heaven. Criminals are there, who half-expected to be in hell after death.

The children are from two different worlds, and they have a knife that can make windows between alternate universes. They use the knife to free all the souls in the underworld, and then to seal it completely. After that, there is no afterlife anymore. People die when they die, instead of experiencing prolonged misery with extended consciousness.

At the end of the book, the two kids learn that after everything they’ve been through together, they can never see each other again. The knife damages reality too much, and they can’t survive in the other person’s world, and they’ve just destroyed the afterlife.

They literally can’t say, “I might not see you again in this life, but maybe we’ll meet again in heaven.”

That setup in the story took my breath away. I cried as the story ended, when Lyra and Will said goodbye with the ultimate finality.

Then I realized that there were people in my life that I hadn’t grieved. The friend who’d committed suicide had the question “Will he be in heaven” always around it. I cried for him with full release. The man who first broke my heart – our friendship had ended indefinitely. I couldn’t move on until I grieved it with finality.

This spring, I went to see the play Antigone at the local University theater. In the scene that was the most moving for me, Antigone goes to the body of her dead brother, Polynices. She cradles his corpse and lets out a mourning wail. Then, in a dream sequence, there is a dance between the brother and sister.

I have practiced the mourning wail – I’ve only seen it in plays, and heard of it used once at a western funeral. You focus all your energy on the loss of a loved one, and ponder briefly the part of your soul that knew that person. Then, imagine (and it’s more reality than imagination with grief, it just helps to have a visual) that part of your soul being sliced or torn off from the rest of your spirit. The wail is one of intensely unbearable pain, and you scream so loudly that the building vibrates, and you keep the sound going until there’s no breath left in your lungs, and you keep going.

After screaming like that, the pain isn’t totally gone, but there’s a sense of release.

This modern culture has forgotten how to grieve. We don’t live with the reality of death, because there’s no finality in it. Even the non-religious or casually religious talk about the afterlife as a possibility for their lost loved ones. We are depriving ourselves of the final stage of grief.

Some things must end before we can grieve them. When I let go of my belief in an eternal afterlife, I gained a greater appreciation for the brevity of life, and was finally able to process the final stage of grief.