One of my dearest friends is now grieving over the recent death of her dearest friend to breast cancer. I e-mailed her a beautiful little poem in which she, I, and many others have found consolation over the years in the wake of personal loss:
Do not stand by my grave and weep,
I am not there...
I do not sleep,
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glint on snow,
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning hush,
I am the soft uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight,
I am the stars that shine at night.
Do not stand by my grave and cry...
I am not there,
I did not die.
I don’t know who wrote this poem. I’ve seen it attributed to many people. But it’s a wonderful expression of my view of our nature: Each and every one of us is fundamentally inseparable from and therefore ultimately IS the unified totality of existence, and when a person dies, the essence of what that person was has not perished and never will. He or she is not just figuratively but is quite literally the “diamond glint on snow,” “the gentle autumn rain,” “the stars that shine at night,” and my very own heartbeat, thoughts, emotions, and dreams.
Some would say this is wishful, childish thinking. They would say that people are bodies with or without souls and that when they die, they’re either nothing more than rotting corpses or cremated ash, or they’re incorporeal souls that have moved on to new lives in heaven (or hell) or in different bodies here on earth.
They may be right. They may be wrong. I don’t really know. I feel certain of very little even about life, much less about death. But I wonder what difference it would or should make if I did feel certain about the nature of death and the fate of the dead. If a key role of religion or spirituality is to help us understand and cope with life’s most momentous events and biggest challenges, shouldn’t it help us to understand and cope with our death or with the deaths of others? Yet, how should we understand death from a religious or spiritual perspective, and how should our understanding affect our emotions and actions?
These are questions for which I have no answers at present, only more and more questions. I do believe that religion or spirituality worthy of the name and of our time should profoundly affect the way we feel about the deaths of friends, loved ones, and ourselves, but I’m not sure precisely how.