My grandmother-in-law died a couple weeks ago. She was 105-years-old. She seemed ready to go. She held on for a long time, but I am glad that she felt like she didn’t need to keep holding on. Still, I am sad she’s gone. She would tell us a story about something that happened a long time ago and then she’d say, “It’s funny what you remember.” We like to say that at our house now. It’s been a kind of rite to visit her whenever we are in Spokane, a rite that connects us to other parts of the family. I’ll miss that. I’ll miss her matter-of-factness about the world. “I’m not old,” she’d tell us. Thinking about her now makes me smile. I am sad that she will no longer be out there in the world.
I was going to tell my parents, and then I didn’t. I didn’t because I knew that they would ask me, “Was she a Christian?” And I knew that they would ask because they wanted to know whether she was going to heaven. And that they would want to know that because they would want to know whether it was really an occasion for mourning or not. Or at least, that’s how that question always felt to me. Christianity, as I came to know it as a very young child, was about avoiding death and the need to mourn death. The Christians I grew up around would evangelize to people who didn’t believe by asking them whether they knew where they were going when they died. And they would tell them that they would go to hell if they didn’t believe in Jesus. When someone died, if they were a Christian, it didn’t seem like anyone around me would be really sad about it. Countless times, reports would come to me of someone dying with the information that they were believers.
I’ve been working through some of the affects of Christianity and one that I think has stayed with me is the difficulty in truly mourning–whether it be loss or injustice. I briefly discuss the way that Christianity seems to mourn mortality, and structure itself around avoiding death in my post on Christianity Without Metaphysics. What I have lately come to realize is that Christianity, at least a Christianity that thinks the goal is heaven, has robbed me of the capacity to experience loss or mourning. And it is only with the end of heaven that true mourning becomes possible. What I have newly come to see and understand is that I want to be able to mourn. I want to be able to acknowledge loss, to see the gaps left by the absence of people I love. Like this last summer when I went to the small town in Montana where my grandmother lived her whole life and where my dad grew up and the whole town felt haunted by my grandparents. I missed them because they were gone. I missed them without consolation of a possible reunion. They were there, waving from the porch until they couldn’t see us anymore, and then they were not. And they will never be again.
I wonder about what we lose when we lose the capacity to mourn. I wonder if we lose the capacity to take this life and this world, its pain, the real death of others, seriously. I wonder whether this inability to mourn is what keeps us from doing something about genocide of the Rohinga in Myanmar and of the harm done by ICE deporting DREAMers and ending TPS for immigrants from Haiti and Syria. If death doesn’t matter, then killing doesn’t matter.
I’m of the mind that ways of thinking should be considered for how they work in the world, for their use, as much as for whether they can be justified and supported through argument. This notion that we need not be really sad because someone has gone to heaven seems to work by limiting our capacity to feel loss in the face of death, which then makes us fail to take death seriously, which then leads us to accept the notion that some people are just going to have to die for other people to live the way they want to live. But it also keeps us from thinking about the decisions we make in life as really real, as really mattering. The only decision is to do what is required so that you avoid death. And then heaven is just life stretched out where nothing will lead to the end, the eternal return of the same.
The Greeks had the Eleusian Mysteries believed to be protected by Demeter. The Mysteries were commonly understood to be about death and to be about preparing for death. Rumor has it the mystery of death is that there is no mystery. The Mysteries were closely guarded, and I wonder if it was because if they were made public, then people might take living a heck of a whole lot more seriously.
I’m not someone who longs for heaven. I think I would rather mourn than have the consolation of heaven. But I do wonder whether really bringing about a world that might resemble heaven requires letting go of our hold on the consolations of death.