Advice for those who are close to individuals dying or grieving a loss.
I have three words for them.
Excerpt from Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult
Is this world all there is?
We cannot conceive of what life might be like if it is not material like this life. In this life we are tied to the tangible, except our deepest experiences tend to be things that are not really physical like love, like memory. We cannot imagine what happens after death, but the poverty of our imagination does not prove that the world is not more creative then we know.
It is lovely to think that the loss of this world is a ticket price to the inheritance of the next. Maybe we step through this world as if through a corridor. A beautiful comment by Bronson Alcott, friend of Emerson and father of Louisa May Alcott, ties together the themes of failing memory and the world to come. As he grew older, Emerson started to lose his memory. He tried to get around it - once forgetting the term "umbrella" he called it "the thing strangers take away" - but it troubled him. He was consoled by Alcott, who made reference to the Platonic legend that human beings know all about this world, but lose that knowledge the moment we are born. Likewise, he said that as we get older, we start to lose knowledge of this world in the form of a failing memory to prepare us for the next one. Each time we cannot remember something about this world, it is not failing but letting go.
The most powerful and comprehensive attempt to ease the loss attendant upon death is the belief that we will live on. Believing in another world make the losses of this world less enduring and more bearable. But, of course we cannot be certain if there is another world. We are not granted a glimpse.
The idea that we continue takes may forms, from the existence of another world to the lightest, least concrete, which is that we live on in memory. The English poet James Elroy Flecker, who hoped to live on through the artistry of his lines addressed to a poet, who will read them 1,000 years later, wrote: "O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,/ Student of our sweet English tongue,/Read out my words at night alone:/ I was a poet, I was young."
The comfort of memory may be all we have. If so, then living well, creating art or children, is the only assurance of permanence, because then we will leave a legacy.
Leaving a legacy is a heroic ideal, one which we find in classical poetry and the Greek world from which it grew. In The Illiad the martial legacy of Achilles endures not the warrior himself. Achilles dies, but to die heroically and leave a memory shining to posterity is surely better than to eke out a few more miserable years as a coward. The same notion lives in the famous funeral oration of Pericles, in epic poems, in the encomiums lavished on heroism in Plutarch's Lives. As written in the medieval epic Beowulf: "We must all expect an end to life in this world; let him who can win fame before death, because that is a dead man's best memorial."
The idea persists today. At funerals, we are told that "this person will live on in memory of his good deeds, and in the hearts of those who loved him." This sentiment helps with the loss, but it does not take it away. Still, the person is gone. Still, the family is bereft. Still, there is a hole in the world.
The soft, insistent voice of something more whispers in our ear. Can this be all?
Rabbi David Wolpe's Recommended Reading
Kung, Hans. Translator: Quinn, Edward. "Eternal Life?: Life After Death
As a Medical, Philosophical, and Theological Problem."
Remen , Rachel Naomi. "Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal."
Spitz , Rabbi Elie Kaplan and Weiss, Brian L. "Does the Soul Survive:
A Jewish Journey to Belief in Afterlife, Past Lives, and Living with
Wolpe, David. "Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times."