Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
Q: When a loved one dies, we miss them for the rest of our lives. What happens when we die and go to heaven? Do we miss those we leave behind? Heaven promises us complete happiness, but I can’t imagine being happy without my children and grandchildren. — R, via email
A: Your poignant question seems particularly appropriate when our thoughts turn to those whom death has taken from us in the past year. Your question reveals your deep and powerful love for your family. They are blessed to be loved by you. Your question reminds us that we mourn in a self-referential manner. We focus on how we feel about no longer being with the ones we loved in life and still love in our hearts after death. Your question turns us around and asks us to think about how they feel about no longer being with us.
Such questions about the fate of our souls after death confront the mystery of human finitude and with it the existence and nature of the soul and God. The philosopher Gabriel Marcel taught that such questions about mysteries cannot be answered the way we answer questions about problems. Problems are questions we constitute.
Mysteries are questions within which we ourselves are constituted. We confront and solve problems but we can only encounter and live through the mysteries. Problems disappear once they are answered but mysteries endure forever. The truth is that we already understand the distinction between problems and mysteries even before we are taught how to describe it.
When I teach about problems and mysteries to children and adults whose spiritual curiosity has not been killed by the secular world, I ask them a series of questions. I ask them what is the cure for cancer and they know that this is just a problem. It has no solution yet but someday it will and it will go away. I ask them if they think goodness is ultimately rewarded and evil ultimately punished and they all know that this is a mystery and that it will never be solved and never go away. Our response to the nature of our soul’s feelings after death is a mystery whose best and only response by us is how we live our lives.
So if you truly believe that God is the creator and comforter of our souls, then you must also believe that God will comfort and console the souls of our beloved ones in Heaven. I believe this and our faiths believe this. God is the healer of broken souls. Being so close to the glory of God no doubt helps to comfort the souls of our dearly departed. I believe that another part of the healing God provides for them to reduce the agony of separation from us is that their souls in Heaven are finally reunited with the souls of their ancestors and teachers and friends.
Buddhism has a sobering but deeply wise approach to the mystery of death. Buddhism teaches that life is full of suffering and the cause of this suffering is being too attached to this life that is ultimately just an illusion. By reducing our attachments while still living lives of compassion, we can more easily cope with the mystery of death and the meaning of life.
The Western faiths take a more world-attached view in which grief is accepted as the price of love. Grief is not to be avoided. Grief is therefore something to be welcomed because it is proof of a loving attached life. This is the view of Judaism, which is the faith most attached to this life and this world. Islam is slightly less attached to the world than Judaism and has a more elaborated conception of Heaven. Christianity is by far the least attached Western faith. Jesus sums this up perfectly in his simple yet powerful teaching in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Christian theology really does straddle East and West and so does my favorite modern poet, Mary Oliver, who wrote with elegance, simplicity and wisdom the deepest truth I know about how to cope with death from the perspective of either souls living on earth or souls living in Heaven:
“To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”