Q. You wrote almost a year ago about your deep personal loss with the death of Father Tom Hartman. All who have lost such a close, personal, human connection — whether family or friend — understand something of what you feel. Your loss of ‘Tommy’ raises a question that has bothered me for years: Is the loss of a good friend or human connection more or less devastating depending upon whether the survivor does or does not believe in some kind of survival of the essence of the departed?
— R via e-mail from Wilmington, N.C.
A. As the first anniversary of his passing approaches in February I find myself thinking much more about him than I did right after his death. The pain of his loss at the time was simply too great for me to open myself up to any form of true, enduring or spiritually effective healing. Now, in the shortening shadows of grief provided to me by time, I am able to try at least to feel the joy I felt for his life more than the pain I felt at his death. For years I have counseled mourners not to expect substantial, palpable and enduring healing from the death of true loved ones for at least a year after someone’s passing. Now I am feeling that wisdom in my own soul. I am able to think about our golf games together and about our joint appearances that went well and those that bombed.
Mostly I remember the bombs. One day I remember Tommy saving me from what I was certain would be physical harm when, during one of our interfaith dialogues at his home parish, I suggested in jest that given the success of bagel shops, the church might consider offering flavored Eucharist wafers, not just plain Eucharist wafers, to communicants — you know, sesame Eucharist or onion Eucharist or everything Eucharist. My jest did not jest anyone in the church. But thankfully, Tommy stepped in and saved me by quickly saying, “Marc, for Christians, Jesus is everything.”
I also have given great thought to your question. What I like most about your question is that it is not focused on the impenetrable mystery of what actually happens to us after death. It is rather a question about whether mourners who believe in life after death have an easier time with their grief than do those mourners who believe that the only things awaiting us after death are worms. I love this question even though it is a question about psychology more than a question about theology, and therefore the evidence needed to answer it comes more from data than from the divine.
I believe absolutely and without a doubt that believing in heaven helps you cope with the death of a loved one more than believing that this life of ours is all we have. I have seen it. I have seen a mourning husband scream at the edge of his wife’s grave, “Hold on honey, I’m coming. I will be with you soon.” I have seen parents who need to comfort their grieving children say to them as their best and most comforting words, “Don’t worry my dear, grandma is in heaven now. She is with God and grandpa and she is watching over you.”
Does it matter if these words are true? Yes, it matters in some ultimate theological accounting. But it does not matter at all if what we are seeking is comfort after the death of one we have loved more than life itself. I believe that the main reason that people are religious is the fear of their own death, but far more so, their fear of the death of those they love. The atheist critique that all this is just magical thinking on the part of people too weak to accept the true limits of life may indeed be correct. I also have known people who did not believe in life after death and who nonetheless have faced death with courage and serenity. The ultimate answer to all this comes from a place where the cell phone service to call home is really bad. What I do know is that although heaven can wait, the belief in heaven cannot wait because after death our broken souls desperately need the embrace of everlasting hope.