J. Dana Trent’s latest book, Dessert First: Preparing for Death While Savoring Life, chronicles her work as an end-of-life chaplain and grief guru. It will be released on September 10, 2019.
My husband and I both lost our parents by our mid-30s. Perhaps it’s not unusual to be “orphaned” so early, at least historically, but losing a parent at any age is a devastating blow. What made our grief even harder was the way we processed these deaths differently in our mixed-faith marriage. My husband Fred is an ordained Hindu priest and former monk. I am a Christian minister.
In my own experience as an end-of-life care chaplain, professor, and grieving person, I encountered that nearly everyone facing death–or an impending loss–has a complex theological approach to questions of “What comes next?” Even the simplest wondering, “Will I see my loved one again?” conjures entangled spiritual questions.
Even the simplest wondering, “Will I see my loved one again?” conjures entangled spiritual questions.
When our fathers died nearly one year apart to the day, Fred and I came face to face with our differing religious views of the afterlife. We did not agree on what the academic study of religion calls the “ultimate purpose,” or where we are going after death. During times of grief, it’s natural to turn to our religion, the structure of values and ethics with which we approach the world, and its leaders, sacred texts, doctrine, and dogma, for explanations. Often, when suffering arrives, we reach deep into our own traditions for answers, or at the very least, space to ask the tough questions. But in our case, this reaching into different traditions created more tension than solace.
In Hinduism, each human is an atma—an eternal soul that reincarnates time and time again in a cycle called samsara, commonly known as reincarnation. Because of this idea that the person’s essence moves to another body, grief looks very differently for Hindus than Christians. At the time of death, Eastern practitioners can be joyful, as the atma is moving to its next life–its next chance. In Hinduism, to chant the Holy Name of God or a mantra without ceasing is to keep the atma focused, so that it receives a good life after this one.
When our fathers died nearly one year apart to the day, Fred and I came face to face with our differing religious views of the afterlife.
Christianity adheres to the linear perspective of a singular earthly life. During this one-and-only round, humanity wrestles with sin and salvation through Jesus Christ. Belief in, and acceptance of, Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection leads to eternal life in Heaven. Christianity’s approach is linear, with no mulligans.
Because of these two vastly different ways of imagining what happened to our fathers after their deaths, we have grieved differently, and largely alone. Fred felt relief for his father’s atma’s new chance; I felt deep sadness toward my father’s only chance at life on earth.
It has taken us years, but Fred and I found a way to mourn together by using rituals: the meaning-making stuff of life. Rituals are markers in our journey of life and the path toward, during, and after death. They help us to remember one another in ways that are both practical and spiritual. Rituals can be related to tangible things: an icon or statue of a saint, a holy relic. Or they can be more abstract, as with rituals that mark sacred time.
Fred felt relief for his father’s atma’s new chance; I felt deep sadness toward my father’s only chance at life on earth.
Some rituals exist solely within a specific and formal context–like Christian sacraments and Hindu puja worship. Formal rituals—from Judaism to Hinduism to Christianity to New Religious Movements—are already set in place and ready for use. For many raised in the Christian faith, these are the first rituals we experience: prayer book liturgies, baptisms, baby dedications, confirmations, and communion. But we needn’t limit ourselves solely to institutional, bigbox sorts of rituals.
Particularly when it comes to preparing for death, actively dying, or grieving, the ready-made formal rituals may not fit or fulfill what we need. A meaningful ritual for the dying and bereaved does not require vestments, ornate liturgy, perfect elocution, or gold-leafed invitations. It can be as simple as shared stories, favorite meals of the deceased, or honoring a special anniversary. These rituals may be planned or spontaneous, and they help us and our loved ones create sacred space and conversation around death. Incorporating rituals infuses what are otherwise heart-wrenching situations with meaning and mysticism. Rituals cannot remove heartbreak, but they can help us cope with it and connect with others.
For Fred and me, utilizing formal rituals presented doctrinal and dogmatic challenges; they were not necessarily useful in processing our fathers’ deaths together. So, we opted for simplicity. Our go-to meaning-making activity became story-telling around the dinner table about loved ones mourned and missed.
We needn’t limit ourselves solely to institutional, bigbox sorts of rituals.
As Fred and I reviewed our days over supper, we began to identify threads that reminded us of our parents. When Fred completed some IT engineering feat, I reminded him that he is his critical-thinking father’s son. When I told a dramatic story about teaching, overemphasizing details for effect, Fred reminded me that I am my larger-than-life father’s daughter. Invariably these prompts helped us recall a story about both men–one that usually ended with laughter and tears.
Sharing stories has bridged the gaps in our faith traditions and allowed us to mourn together. Instantly, our fathers are seated at the dinner table with us through this informal ritual of remembering them as real people—not saints or sinners, but the actual loved ones we will always miss.