The God Squad: Death is a reality that deserves honest articulation
Q: I look to you for information, peace in my heart and I just love your sense of humor. I am totally destroyed over the present conditions we're having to live in between the COVID-19 virus, isolation and the hatred in our country because of politics. I know I'm one of probably millions and sometimes I just don't know what to do to stay positive and know that God is totally in control. I will continue to pray because I don't know what else to do. Thank you for being you and for helping us in so many ways. — M
A: I am deeply moved by your kind words and deep pain, dear M. What I urge you to pray about in these broken times is just this, with a faith in God you are stronger than any pain. Even now, every day there is a truth I cling to and I invite you to embrace, your blessings are always greater than your burdens. These are not just platitudes. They are healing truths for me and I hope for you as well. Also, stay safe and please get vaccinated when it is your turn. Getting vaccinated is a real act you can perform to help you not feel like a total victim. I also believe that the vaccines are a miracle and even though so much of the chaos of our time is beyond our control, we can take control of our own health and protect both ourselves and those we know and love. So, please, dear M, stay strong and of good faith and most of all — don’t waste a miracle!
Q: I wonder if you could tell me why people are so reluctant to say the word "died.” They say "passed away" or just "passed". I think it's ridiculous to avoid the natural, since everything that lives, dies. The terms they use make it seem as if the person just went by, or went by "away", wherever that is. I think the denial of the fact that the person's body has died is irritating. — B
A: Death is a reality that deserves honest articulation. In this you are completely right, dear B. Grandma has not passed. Grandma has died. Grandma is dead. However just writing those stark words, “Grandma is dead” should help you understand why we use euphemisms to help us deflect the pain of grief. We are already wounded and the last thing we need is to rub salt into the wound. Also, saying that a loved one has passed helps us to focus on the hope that faith brings to mourners of every religion I know. Our faith teaches us, urges us, invites us to believe that death is not the end of us — that a new spiritual journey awaits our souls beyond the grave. That belief is called Heaven or The World to Come, or Janna, but its promise is the same in every religion. It is the belief that we humans are made up of two distinctly different elements — body and soul.
The three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam developed these beliefs from contact with Aristotle’s concepts of matter and form. Matter, which became spiritualized as body, is the principle of potentiality and form, spiritualized as soul, is the principle of actuality. What this means is that our bodies are informed by our souls. Our bodies are shaped by our souls. Our bodies are joined with our souls before birth and they are separated from our souls at death. Some faiths, like Hinduism and some forms of Jewish mysticism, believe that after our bodily death, our souls are reincarnated by being joined with a new body. Some, like the psychiatrist and hypnotherapist Dr. Brian Weiss (“Many Lives Many Masters”) believe that we can actually recall the past lives of our soul, but for most people Heaven is the final destination of our soul’s one-time journey through an embodied life.
My view is that all this is way above my pay grade. I am quite happy and sufficiently challenged in trying to squeeze the most goodness out of this single life I have been blessedly given. Also, if I did have a previous life and I was not a king or an emperor in that life, I am just not that interested in finding out about it. Especially if I was a bug in a previous life, I just do not want to know about who squished me. The main point is that saying that Grandma has passed rather than just the stark truth that “Grandma is dead” presents us with the promise of life after death at just exactly the moment when we need that hope the most. Your view is the more truthful. My view is gentler. Sometimes we need gentleness more than truth.
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at email@example.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)
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