Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
QUESTION: My son passed away the end of 2013, five days after his 27th birthday. He suffered throughout those years with a chronic illness that was disabling medically and physically. One day after an acute illness that appeared to be under control, my son left this world. The life I had come to know as normal was over. Gone was the child I had mourned for years ago when I had to face the fact he was not going to be the boy I had expected. In time, I came to accept this and enjoyed spending time with a young man I both admired and worshipped. I have spent half my life making sure every need was met in my son's life. How do I find meaning to my life and create a new life for myself? I have become interested in life after death and want to believe in it and the signs that go with it. I want to find peace and believe he is safe and in a good place.
-- Anonymous via email
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ANSWER: Grief is the price we pay for love. The deeper the love, the deeper the grief. You surely would not agree to a deal in which you loved your son less in life in order to grieve less after his death. Grief is the cost of love we willingly accept when we open our lives to loving others. You were blessed to have loved your son so powerfully and so you should try to get into a spiritual place where you accept with pain -- but without complaint -- his tragic death.
One way to get to a place beyond your brokenness is to resurrect your belief in heaven. I believe there are good reasons to believe in heaven, though none of these reasons constitutes a proof. Faith is not science. Faith is hope and hope cannot be proven. Hope is ultimately an act of courage in which we assert that we cannot believe that death is the end of us.
Death is, of course, the end of our embodied life. But death is not, I choose to believe, the end of our ensouled life. The reason for this belief is that our souls are not material, they are spiritual, and death cannot end the piece of us that is of the same essence as the immortal essence of God. So believing we have a soul made in the image of God actually compels us to believe that our souls do not die.
Of course we may not have souls. We may be just globs of material goo that disintegrate and decompose when we die. One of my early teachers was Richard Rubenstein, a rabbi who became an atheist after his inability to accept that a good God allowed the Holocaust. He wrote lucidly about the dark creed of the materialist: "I am convinced that I have arisen out of nothingness and am destined to return to nothingness. All human beings are locked in the same fatality. In the final analysis, omnipotent nothingness was lord of all creation. Nothing in the bleak, cold, unfeeling universe was remotely concerned with human aspiration and longing. ...Only death perfects life and ends its problems. God can only redeem by slaying. We have nothing to hope for beyond what we are capable of creating in the time allotted to us. ...In the final analysis all things crumble away into the nothingness which is at the beginning and end of creation."
The question is not whether Richard was correct. The question is whether you can live a hopeful life after the death of your son if you believe that he is correct. I don't think you can, but this is your great spiritual choice. I am with, and I hope you are with, Albert Camus, who wrote, "I would rather live my life as if there is a God and heaven and die to find out there isn't, than live my life as if there isn't and die to find out there is." I once asked the famous atheist Christopher Hitchens, "Without God and heaven what is the source of your hope?" He looked at me and said, "That is the best question." He died without the best answer to the best question, but youdo not have to suffer his fate. You can believe that heaven is real and that your son is in heaven now.