Here is an essay I wrote when struggling with the death of someone close to me. I consider some of the great religious traditions alive today as mythological systems containing reservoirs of wisdom. Myths are windows providing a brief glimmer onto the wondrous, numinous, and the ineffable. And, sometimes, the briefest glimmer is enough.
Developing a Personal Mythology of Death
As a member of the Western world, the way I thought of dying, death, and the afterlife was a combination of the Christian belief along with the Western method of approaching life events in a rather removed, intellectual way; that is, removed until I experienced loss myself.
If there is a confidence by the bereaved that the deceased person has gone to the Christian idea of heaven, why would there be sadness? Wouldn’t there be celebration? A happiness that the person is in a better place? Even the most devout Christian grieves deeply over a loss of someone he or she is confident went to heaven.
In developing my personal mythology of death, I did not reject the Christian notions. However, I found the sacred text of another tradition, the “Bhagavad Gita” of the Hindu, a great resource as I traversed this unpleasant terrain.
In the “Bhagavad Gita,” the hero, Arjuna, asks the Hindu god, Krishna, “What can overcome a sorrow that saps all my vitality?” When grieving a profound loss, a deep sorrow is experienced, but it is so difficult to understand.
Krishna says, “The body is mortal, but he who dwells in the body is immortal and immeasurable.” This is not unlike the Christian concept of soul. And then a few lines later Krishna says to Arjuna, “Death means the attainment of heaven.” Again this is very similar to platitudes you might expect to hear from the pulpit on any given Sunday. To me these comments do nothing to ease the pain of grief (and I couldn’t see that Arjuna was getting that much out of it either).
Still talking to Arjuna, Krishna comments, “Just as a reservoir is of little use when the whole countryside is flooded, scriptures are of little use to the illumined man or woman, who sees the Lord everywhere.” This says to me that if I can “see the Lord everywhere” and in all things, then wouldn’t the Lord also be present in my joy and equally present in my sorrow? Now we’re getting somewhere.
Krishna further on in the “Gita” says to Arjuna, “O mighty Arjuna, even if you believe the Self to be subject to birth and death, you should not grieve. Death is inevitable for the living; birth is inevitable for the dead. What is there to lament in this? The Self of all being, living within the body is eternal and cannot be harmed. Therefore, do not grieve.”
This passage is somehow consoling. The Self living within the body that is eternal and cannot be harmed is very similar to the Christian concept of the soul, and yet not the same. Maybe it is the absence of morality that makes this approach more palatable. The Self in all is divine from the Hindu perspective. The soul of the Christian belief may be immortal but is not divine. It is just as likely (if not more so from many Christians’ perspective) to spend eternity in Hell as it is to spend eternity in Heaven.
Maybe I can come to see the Self in myself and all who occupy my world. For me the mourning process is the means to this vision. I am much more like Arjuna in his wavering than Krishna in his steadfastness. To hear Krishna’s words is a beginning for me, but to take them to heart and incorporate them into my mythology of death is a personal challenge.
If you are able to see the Self inside the garment of the mortal body, I believe mourning would be eased. Death had been perceived as “terminal” to me. Now I can see death differently. The Self in us is immortal and divine and therefore never ceases to exist. The “Bhagavad Gita” has provided me with additional building blocks to erect my personal mythology of death.
Greg Mogenson in his book, “Greeting the Angels”, approaches this topic of Death psychologically. He uses an imaginal approach that leads us into a conversation of what death is to the dead and what life could be to the living left behind. This conversation presents the notion that coming to terms with death must precede a full awareness of life.
In a society, such as the Western cultures in general, that has become spiritually bankrupt, the mourning process may become a means for the individual to regain soul. No matter how bitterly we experience our loss, we are the richer for having known them. The mourner’s soul becomes more and more robust. What if the loss of a loved one–whether through death or separation–is not a loss of being but a shift in it?
Mourning may be healthy both for the psyche and the emotional state of the bereaved as well as for the whole society. Mourning is soulful. Mourning gives us the opportunity to remember that “the body is mortal, but he who dwells in the body is immortal and immeasurable.” Knowledge in the mind is now becoming an experience in the heart.
What I am finding is that by honoring the deceased, by proceeding through the mourning process, by giving death a place of reverence, experiencing the pain instead of avoiding or denying it, I am given the gift of seeing the Self that had occupied the now dead body and am more likely to see the Self in those in my life still living.
Since writing this original essay several years ago, I have had many losses in my life. Every time I go through this process, it seems I have to start all over. Here I am again working toward developing a mythology of death supported by the great narratives in myth. With each death I still mourn. I also am beginning to see a glimmer that death is a gift; a means to see the immortal within and to stand before the wonder of life.
In memory of my elder brother Truman Rocke Warlick (1939-2020).