Today, I find myself thinking of a good friend. Tomorrow, she and her family will bury her father. It will be exactly two weeks since she buried her mother. Toward the end of her mother’s service, we stood together, knowing that we would be standing together for a similar reason very soon. Her father was in hospice care and close to death. My friend is strong, resilient, and anchored in her Christian faith. She has difficult days ahead, and she will rise to the occasion.
The fact that her parents had been together for more than 60 years does help us make some sense of the timing. It is not uncommon for older married couples to die within a short period of each other. We understand this, and we tend to console ourselves with the thought that these two people who were like one during life are still together in death. Christian and Buddhist beliefs around what happens after death differ greatly. Some of us will be happy that they have returned home to the Lord, while others will hope they are not returning in rebirth. In both cases, it is likely that we share a sense of relief that the recently deceased does not have to live too long without their partner. A common theme that we all believe is that both of the deceased are now freed from suffering.
At the funeral of my friend’s mother, with great conviction and eloquence, the pastor reminded us of the fact that we were gathered together to celebrate a life and a homecoming. A perfect message and statement to his congregation; Christians are not meant to live an earthly life forever. The goal is to go home to the Lord. Standing there as probably the sole Buddhist, I was contemplating rebirth and karma and eventual freedom from rebirth. These are two very different belief systems. Each can bring the believer some comfort. My friend wants her parents to be reunited with Jesus. I want people to find the ultimate release from suffering.
It is good to have beliefs that give us strength during difficult times and teach us gratitude in times of ease. It is so helpful to know that our deceased loved ones are at peace. To recognize that death is a natural part of the plan—whether you call it God’s plan or karma, there will be death. Whether you call it a homecoming or a release from suffering, there is still separation. With the homecoming there is a leaving. You are left behind.
After my own father died, my mother had difficulty living with her grief. And naturally she turned to her parish priest for guidance. One day she shared with me that she felt guilty because when the priest told her that she should be glad and joyful that her husband was now with the Lord, she still felt overwhelming sadness. Of course she did. Her best friend and loving partner of almost 55 years was gone. Don’t think that I am coming after Christians here, I am not. As a Buddhist, I too have been chastised for feeling sadness, because it means that I have not learned to let go of attachment.
None of this easy.
Believing that two people who spent a lifetime together are now together in the afterlife, or working toward a release from suffering, or celebrating a homecoming; all of this helpful. You will still feel sad. You will recognize that someone you loved is no longer available to you. I hope that what you will not feel is guilt. Specifically guilt around your grief. Guilt around attachment. You can celebrate a life while experiencing heartache.
Tomorrow, my friend and her siblings and other family members are saying goodbye to their father. It is a time of celebration, of joy, that two people are together in death, and of relief that both mother and father are no longer suffering here on earth. Yet this does not eliminate the difficult emotions. Most of us are not fully ready to lose our parents. It is a strange feeling when your elders are gone. When my last uncle died (my parents predeceased him), one of my cousins commented that now we were the elders. I was so confused. How were any of us qualified to be the advisers, the ones with life experience? Those who might answer my questions were gone.
We walk through this world with different beliefs, different approaches to processing death, but we share a common humanity. To feel empty or abandoned when both of your parents are gone, these are very human emotions. My hope for my friend, her family, and all of us is that we can celebrate the homecoming, the release from suffering, without hiding our own anguish. To use our beliefs not to mask our sorrow, but to model what it looks like to mourn and all that it entails.