My mom told me about working as a travelling home economist in remote Newfoundland outports in the early 1960’s. One day, an elderly woman pulled her aside and, in all seriousness, asked her where heaven was.
All her life, this woman had been told that God was a man with a white beard who sat in a throne above the clouds and that, if people were good, that’s where they would go when they died. So that’s what she believed. This story of heaven gave security, structure and meaning to her life, and it helped her to face death, for herself and for those she loved.
Then the woman’s granddaughter came home from school, and told her that heaven was not up in the sky. She said that there was no welcoming choir of angels waiting in the clouds to receive the dead. There was just more sky.
The woman was distraught. Suddenly she didn’t know where she’d go when she died, or where her dead loved ones were.
This is such a moving anecdote for me, because it demonstrates how much we are all creatures of narrative. We need stories to understand our lives and our experiences, and those stories are transmitted to us by our culture. A big part of the story this woman had built her life on had been destroyed by her granddaughter’s revelation, and she didn’t have another one to take its place. That’s the definition of an existential crisis.
Many of my death doula clients are looking for a story that rings true to them about what happens after we die. They have a sense that some aspect of us continues on, and that, “There’s a there, there. ” They just don’t have a cohesive story for what that means, or how it actually works in their life. The best map they have is the one that dominant culture gives us: that dying is like turning off a lightswitch. We exist and then we don’t. That doesn’t feel right, but they have anything to replace it.
At some level, many of us live with a chronic, rather than acute version of what this woman felt: that there’s absolutely nothing there when we die, that we’ll be lost. The lightswitch story doesn’t tell us how we will continue to be held in relationship and community after we die. We’ve grown up with the thought, so it’s not such a shock to our system. But it’s equally devastating to the psyche, and when it comes time to die, the fear of disappearing, of ceasing to exist, becomes a fear of dying.
Part of healing dominant culture’s dysfunctional relationship with death is healing our story about what death is, and finding one that has space for us to stay in existence and in relationship, even after our bodies have died.