What is your relationship to the person whose death you are remembering?
My grandmother — my mom’s mom — passed away September 15 of this year. That was the day after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. I think I will always remember her parting date because of that. She was my last living grandparent.
Were you able to be with this person during the process of dying? If you were not physically present, how were you connected in other ways during that time?
My family, like so many, wears brokenness and division like a garment. I had not seen my grandmother in several years when I heard of her decline in health. It was a matter of days or weeks before she would fall asleep in this life. A part of me wanted to see her, but for many reasons including her mental awareness, I chose not to. Instead, I started quietly praying for her repentance and imminent repose. In that way I started feeling present with her, at her side.
How was faith present or absent during those days or moments? How did the death affect your faith?
I’ve lost many people in my life. This, however, was the first death to pass since becoming Orthodox. The moment my mom called to tell me my grandma had passed away, I felt the fiery urge and desire to go stand before the icons and pray for her soul as she entered eternity. That was how and where I mourned for her.
The tears came effortlessly without a cringe in my face as I asked God to forgive her; as I asked Panagia to meet her there; as I prayed for His memory to be eternal and for her soul to find rest where the light of His countenance shines.
For days I returned to this vigil and began to feel that she knew what I was doing. I began to realize that she and I will get to know one another now that she no longer had the world to cling to. It was a bright sadness, I guess I would say, to know we never reconciled in this life, but mercy is healing us even still.
What do you believe about our life after death?
I’m still learning what the Orthodox traditions say about life after death. What I know for sure is that when we die we are either going to be in the presence of God, or in the absence of God. I understand that humility through repentance cleans and heals us in preparation for His presence. The Jesus Prayer is so important for this very reason.
I know that from Luke 16, Jesus tells us of Lazarus and the rich man. They communicate with one another, and they are still aware of those in the world of the living, capable of interceding on our behalf.
I’m also learning how beautiful and holy it is to keep praying for the souls of the departed. If we are truly one unified Body of Christ, then we are not two separate bodies of the ‘living’ and the ‘dead’. We still have the mission and divine duty of praying for one another.
What did you learn from this person’s death that informs your own practices and plans, or feelings, about the rest of your life?:
‘Death is the best teacher.’
‘Always remember that you will die.’
‘There is nothing new under the sun; everything under the sun is meaningless.’
These are truths that have hummed around my mind since her passing. Her death has put into perspective what matters: how I remember the past and how I talk about it; how I interact with friends and strangers; what objects am I attached to and how to let them go. Most importantly it has put into perspective my own repentance. Every facet of my humanity is refining with Death as its teacher.
In the days after my grandma’s death, I reached out to my siblings to reminisce — not about her, but about us. Bitterness is the greatest inheritance from that side of my family. When my grandma and my mom would talk about the past, about their childhoods, it was always drenched in bitterness and pain. I realized that I had acquired the same behavior as I looked back on my own childhood. My siblings and I began to open the recesses of our memories to remember the fun and good times, our jokes, and when we were supportive of each other.
Heritage is something I deeply value and hardly have. I want what passes on from me to my kids and grandkids to be good, holy, joyful, true, admitting the pain and giving glory to God because of it.
Death really is the best teacher.