Friday, September 4, 2015


The afterlife has always fascinated us. What happens after this life is over? Are we judged immediately? Is there a mandatory celestial waiting period? If there is a heaven, what is it like? Most Americans would give the vague response that good people go to Heaven (a place of eternal bliss and comfort) and bad people go to Hell (a place of eternal torment and polka music).

Even though most people raised in a culture steeped in Judeo-Christian ethics would tell you that there is an eternal separation, I have yet to attend a funeral where the officiant indicated the deceased went anywhere other than Heaven. I’m not judging mind you. I wouldn’t want to gaze upon the assembled mourners and say something like, “Well, we all know Terry was a varsity-level jackass and is rotting in Hell, but he did specify that we play this Vince Gill song so here you go…”

Instead, we are told that the deceased has gone to the sweet by and by is still “here with us” or “looking down on us.” I suppose the idea of our loved-ones manifesting themselves as a constant supernatural presence in our lives is comforting. A guardian angel with a pre-existing emotional investment in our continued well-being. Since my grandfather passed away when I was twelve through the suicide of a high-school friend, the idea of being looked down upon from Heaven has become an integral component of the vernacular of grief.  

Then, about a decade ago, I was talking to a friend (who is also a minister) and he completely dismissed the idea. His reasoning was that if Heaven was truly a place free from fear, grief, anger and all other trappings of our human condition how could we possibly remain aware of all terrible events and suffering here on Earth. He gave the example that if he passed away and he was in Heaven but witnessed one of his children or his wife being hurt, it would cease to be Heaven for him.

I had never really thought about it before, and to be honest his perspective didn’t really hit home until a year ago when my son was sick. He was just over a year old and had awoken in the middle of the night with a fever of 106 and labored breathing. We took him to the hospital and it turns out he had contracted RSV which had rapidly evolved into pneumonia.

During the subsequent days there were breathing treatments, antibiotics, steroids, and tears. On the third evening, when I was attempting to put him to bed and he was at the peak of his misery, he just started moaning and whimpering. He clung to me as we sat on the floor together and after several minutes he said “ting daddy ting” which was his way of requesting that I sang him a lullaby. It was a rather uncreative tune whereupon I told him I loved him over a common soothing melody but it was something that only he and I shared.

Finally, after what seemed to be an hour, his body relaxed and he fell asleep. I placed him in his bed, walked into our living room, and broke down in uncontrollable sobbing. All I could think about was me not being there and him pleading for someone to “ting” while multiple well-intentioned adults attempted to discern what he was requesting. The thought of it still makes me cry. The idea that someone I loved so much was suffering and I was powerless to comfort them. I finally understood what the minister meant. I could not imagine sitting in Heaven, looking down on my whimpering son begging for someone to “ting” and still being able to consider it Heaven.

Now I have heard some people explain that Heaven is so wonderful that even the suffering of those closest to us will be muted by the knowledge that they will join us. In other words, Heaven is so incredible and my perspective will have expanded so exponentially, that the temporary Earthly suffering of its future inhabitants would not bother me because I already know how the story ends. 
Perhaps that is true. Perhaps it isn’t.

For now, I will throw my lot in with the minister. I will believe that Heaven is free from pain, suffering, and tears simply because the love of God provides no place for them to exist. His love is so pervasive, so ubiquitous that the passage of time itself would fade into irrelevancy. There would be no separation and therefore no opportunity to experience or agonize over its repercussions. Maybe they won’t need to look for us because we never leave them.


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