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  • My Great Uncle Johnny died last week. Not entirely unexpected. although it happened a couple of months sooner than we’d been told. He was eighty-nine and had been very ill.

    One would think that to live to that age and to die at home with your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren in the house with you, would be a good age and a good death. For those left behind though, death of any kind is a bitter pill. Life is so precious to us and we can’t bear to lose those we love or to let go of them. Understanding death is hard for any of us. And strangely making the most of our own lives is equally hard. With finite time alive we still waste many days and yet claim there are not days enough.

    I sat afterwards with my Great Aunt Mary, who has also been very ill and who is also very old. Her and my mother were very close and she misses her. I’m afraid I’m poor substitute, there is not a lot to say when someone loses their partner of sixty one years and is old and frail themselves. No platitudes will suit, no words quite comfort. You and they know that their time is coming soon also and you skirt around that and try to carry on and make this time together count and ease whatever suffering comes to that person. As my Great Aunt opened up to me, I was surprised that she seemed to be questioning her faith. Something that was always very strong in her. Now this very religious woman seemed lost. Bereft is a good word for those left behind after a death.

    “You think of someone in a good place.” she said. “It’s what we are told but the thing is, nobody has ever come back and told us the truth. Not one, in all the deaths there have been. You would think that they would, and would not let their loved ones suffer.”

    I have lived with and without faith and am now pretty agnostic, believing I cannot know any truth, but it seemed utterly terrible to me that she could not find faith in an afterlife at this stage after believing so strongly in it for her whole life. I needed to give her words of comfort and as I fished in desperation, wanting to ease her mind and the despair her voice conjured, I was surprised again when an answer found it’s way to my lips. Unsure if I should attempt to explain the unexplainable, I did anyway.

    “I think that if God is all powerful, then to know him as we are would overwhelm us completely, it would destroy us. And so perhaps to be in heaven we must undergo transformation, and perhaps that’s what death is. Maybe that change is so vast that it’s impossible for people to communicate it to us once they have made that change.”

    She paused a moment considering.

    “It’s also perhaps like when children cry, and although we soothe them if we can it doesn’t disturb us because we know kids cry lots and cry hard when they’re young and as they get older they’ll not cry so much because what matters changes and trivia no longer upsets us. Maybe we’re just like little children to people in an afterlife and they don’t worry because they know we’ll be fine in the long run once we’ve grown into the place where they are.”

    “Yes, yes that makes sense. You are probably right.” And she seemed eased a little by having some other positive thoughts to think.

    I didn’t at the time really believe a word of what I said but offering a plausible explanation seemed like the better thing to do than to help someone rip away their own faith with doubt at a time when it might most comfort them to have it. I wondered later for myself whether any of what I had said could actually be true. Even though I could not know and would not know, even though I did not need to know, the answer that came had somehow seemed to make sense to me too.
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