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Finding Comfort When Faced With Death

Question & Answer


Q: By Laura

Recently my grandmother passed away very suddenly from an illness. I cared for her as she died, and my doctor now thinks I have PTSD. I’ve been experiencing crippling panic attacks about dying. I wish that I could say that I am a person of faith. I was raised in the Church but I don’t know what proof there is to believe. Listening to an NPR article about the vastness of the universe, thinking about my grandmother, or even thinking about the fact that my baby is 5 years old and I don’t know why the time passes so stupidly fast. I guess I was just hoping that you had something comforting to tell me.

A: By Rev. Roger Wolsey

Dear Laura,

First of all let me say that I’m so sorry about your loss. By the time you receive this response (due to our publishing schedule) it will have been several weeks since her death. How I respond to a person during acute crisis, and several weeks after – differs. So, I feel a bit freer to wax theological with you at this point. As a progressive Christian, who understands what that means in the way that I do, I tend to have a view on these matters that is close to how many of our Jewish friends do, i.e., that the main focus of faith is on the here and now – and it’s okay to be agnostic about whatever may happen next (heaven, the afterlife, etc). I don’t follow Jesus in order to go to Heaven later, I do it for the sake of experiencing wholeness/healing/well-being here and now, trusting that whatever happens when I die will take care of itself.

According to the Gospels, Jesus believed in an afterlife, along with the Pharisees – as opposed to the Sadducees. He conveyed teachings about it to provide comfort and assurance to his disciples. To be honest, I’ve often not been sure about the existence of Heaven – it’s not been central to my faith at any rate – but I recently had the privilege of conducting a memorial service for a trans person who had taken his life. This fellow’s mother had a hard time with his transition from being her daughter to being her son. Two days after his death, she went to visit her very aged mother in an Alzheimer’s unit at a nursing home where she has been residing the past 5 years. For the past 4 years or so, this man’s grandmother wasn’t herself and was not able to interact well with family members who visited her – rarely even recognizing them. When his mother went to visit her mother “to tell her about” her “daughter’s” death she was expecting to pretty much be talking to herself – as her mother has largely not been present or communicable in the past year. But soon after she started talking, her aged mother exclaimed in a burst of lucidity, “He visited me last night! He came to me and he’s beautiful! I mean really beautiful! He wants us all to know that he’s okay, he’s doing well, and he’ll be waiting for us!” And then, just like that, this aged grandmother fell back into her default mode of not being present or responsive.

Laura, all I can say is that I felt goosebumps as I heard this. I felt the truth of it – in my bones. Even though I’m a pastor, I have times of doubt and uncertainty, even about the existence of God – “God, are you really there or am I just talking to myself?” Hearing this story bolstered both my faith in God (in the panentheistic way that I do)– and in the reality of life/something/presence beyond what we know here and now. I was also reminded of how, when I was younger, I “felt” my grandfather visit me one night a few weeks after he died. I felt resonance. I re-membered.

I can’t explain it. And that’s okay. Unlike the liberal Christianity that progressive Christianity evolved from, there’s less of a need for us to be able to “explain” things. We can just hear them, feel them, and know. I realize that this sort of phenomenon/experience may seem subjective and capricious. As with all things, your mileage may vary. But, I pray that somehow even some portion of the essence of what that grieving mother shared with me might be sensed by you.

~ Rev. Roger Wolsey

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

About the Author
Rev. Roger Wolsey is an ordained United Methodist pastor who directs the Wesley Foundation at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and is author of Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity; The Kissing Fish Facebook page; Roger’s Blog on Patheos “The Holy Kiss

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