Today I had occasion to stop and think about the way people move in and out of one’s life. It came up over coffee with a friend. She was remembering the loss of one her childhood companions, gone 20 years today, killed in a random skiing accident. Her first thought when I pressed her to talk about him was that he died doing what he loved best and that fact used to give her some measure of comfort, since it defined the person he was. She went on to talk about how, not unlike the death of pivotal politicians or celebrities, she remembered exactly what she was doing when the call came, and precisely how she sprang into action to ensure that she could get home to say goodbye to him, despite the fact that she now realizes she was in shock. At 22 she had felt loss before, but this was the first time that a true contemporary, someone she thought would always be in the world- however distanced by circumstance- was gone. Just gone.
I have witnessed loss, and experienced too much of my own, yet I am always interested in hearing about how people cope with the passing of those they love. The death of loved ones is, arguably, the foundation of religious thought and speculation. With human self-awareness and reflection upon relationships came the questioning about what happens to us when we die- not the obvious, witnessed, biological process- but about what happens to the essence of those we love. ‘Joe’ was my brother, he helped me hunt, and we ate together around the fire and shared a tent on long winter nights. While his body remains visible and gradually decays and returns to the earth, whatever it was that animated him, that made him who he was- his ‘Joe-ness’, if you will- is gone. This awareness, and concern for each special, mortal, personality is something that has led to questions, and posited answers, for millennia.
Huge mythological elements of all world religions have been devoted to suggestions regarding what happens after death. The Egyptian Underworld ruled by dismembered and resurrected Osiris, the Greek river that must be crossed with the aid of a ferryman requiring payment, the Christian ideal of heaven and despairing vision of hell, as described by myriad myth-makers, from Paul of Tarsus to Dante to Anne Rice, and countless others in between and since. In the Ancient Near East, the dead were afforded no glorious afterlife, yet were thought to become troublesome spirits if their progeny did not observe the proper rites of burial and remembrance. Eastern traditions honour the ancestors and preserve the memories of their forbearers with elaborate rituals. Hinduism and Buddhism hold to the cyclical progression of life and death believing in continual return on the wheel until perfection is attained.
Most are beautiful and hopeful ways to remember those that have left us that acknowledge the importance of our connection to one another. Death is the ultimate truth of the human condition and our stories have always sought to deal with this reality and to somehow soften the blow. The myths suggest the possibility of reunion with those lost, and many offer the potential of return to the ultimate source and final and complete answers to all the questions we ask while alive. Those who suffer in this life will be rewarded in the next; the evil will receive their just desserts- whether in hellfire or rebirth as a cockroach. Myths of the afterlife are often about retribution and recompense, but the real beauty, to me, lies in the concept that those we love may be met again.
My friend is not remotely religious. Like me, she is a student of humanity and has studied world cultures and traditions, finding value and beauty in most expressions of belief and practice that she has discovered in her studies and travels. While she talked about the loss of her friend, and how it is incomprehensible to her that 20 years have passed, she made some cryptic comments about conversations that sounded like they took place after his death. She didn’t even seem to be aware of this anomaly as she expressed fond remembrances.
When I gently pointed it out, she smiled somewhat sheepishly.
“You caught that, did you? Should have known it wouldn’t get past you. Here’s the thing…”
She then went on to explain that shortly after her friend’s death she began having remarkably vivid dreams in which he featured as the main character. In these dreams they were both aware that he had died, but his resurrection was treated matter-of-factly. In the beginning of them all his body lay on a bier in the middle of the intersection at the corner of the street where she grew up. The dream would then shift to an outdoor party with a long table of friends (at times the backyard of her childhood home at others in the small public park down the street), celebrating an event of great happiness- sometimes a graduation, others a wedding or the birth of a child. All the celebrants were always in full party get-up- dressed to the nines and all having a great time. There was a sense of expectation, of waiting for a missing participant, but the mood was always positive.
Then the scene would shift again, and all the partygoers were transported to a nightclub, but one that looked suspiciously like the back room of the ice cream place across from the high school where she spent so much time as a teenager. When the party was at its height, the guest of honour would finally arrive, moving a little slowly, as if still recovering from the injuries that caused his death, but with the same smile and spirit of fun that everyone remembered with so much love.
The last part of the dream always consisted of my friend and her lost one, walking alone together back to the bier in the corner intersection. During the walk they would always discuss things of great import- concerns that were weighing on her heavily at the time or decisions that needed making. Her friend always listened carefully and offered answers or advice, gently and without judgement. When they reached the intersection there would be a last hug and smile and then her friend would say goodbye and carefully resume his place on the bier.
Interpreters of dreams would have a field day analyzing these recurring offerings, and my friend has studied enough psychology and religion to be aware of the many archetypal symbols and themes that are being drawn from her subconscious mind (or the Jungian collective unconscious- take your pick).
“I know, I know. The bier placed in the liminal intersection, the celebrants awaiting the deceased… it’s a psychoanalytic cornucopia. But the dreams, and the memory of the dreams always give me such a sense of peace and connection. So many myth systems offer variants of ideas of reincarnation. For some reason these dreams have always resonated with my own interpretation of some of the Celtic stories of Tir na Nog. Somehow I always awaken from the dreams with the image in my mind of him standing on the beach of an island, looking out to sea. He is young, completely happy and he is waiting. He is patiently waiting until the opportunity arises for us all to be born again together.
I realize that the Celtic myths themselves don’t speak directly to that interpretation of the afterlife and reincarnation, but isn’t that part of the power of the stories we create to provide comfort through inexplicable loss? We take what we need to be able to move on with happiness.
It’s strange though. I have experienced other great losses; this is the only one I view in light of my version of the Celtic afterworld. It suits him, I guess. Eternal youth for an exceptional friend who embraced life with vigour, and the eager anticipation of reunion when the universe says it is time. It’s naïve and romantic, but it’s how I can smile when I think about him. Especially now, 20 years later.”
How could I not smile, in response? Here was a perfect example of how myths impact our lives and how shared stories, and their interpretations, connect us to one another and keep alive the memories of those we have lost. Our myths help us to deal with the unanswerable and therein lies their value. Our human stories allow us to cope in the way that most resonates with us as individuals and as cultures. Telling these stories connects us to one another in ways that shouldn’t be underestimated or discounted. Myths are not ‘untruths’, as common parlance would have it. They are invaluable representations of the deepest wells of the best (and often the worst- can’t have the positive without its flipside- balance is ever-present) of what it means to be human.