I went to a Catholic funeral on Friday. The day started with mass; it had been a while since I had attended one. I’m always a little conflicted in a Catholic church. There are moments of familiarity that I embrace, and then there are the flashbacks that remind me about why I don’t go there anymore.
What I like: the space, stained glass windows, the incense that the priest shakes around in that fancy shaker thing. And priests. Oh goodness, I have had an unhealthy love for priests ever since I started watching The Thorn Birds at a young age. Someday….someday I will find my Father Ralph!
But I’ve never felt a connection to the Catholic church, despite trying for several years. For me it was blah blah blah blah blah blah blah and then in the middle of all of the blah-blahing there would be a tiny crumb of an idea that struck me.
I remember being a 20-year-old and asking my godmother, “Why don’t they talk about real life at church? It’s so much more interesting when the priest starts to talk about life.” She said she was failing as my godmother, and I drifted further and further away from being a Catholic.
I knew Buddhism was for me when every service gave me chunks of ideas to mull over instead of having to wait for a microscopic crumb. I have to bring a notebook just to capture ideas and thoughts that happen at every single service. It’s a feeling you have when you know you are at home–a connection. You feel it in your gut; a validation that you are exactly where you should be.
Sitting through the mass on Friday with the attention span of a gnat, I waited for the crumb. Up and down, up and down. My eyes drifted to the beautiful stained glass window of Mary holding Jesus.
Finally, in the middle of the service, the little old Irish priest said, “Love is spiritual.”
The crumb I had been waiting for. Something to resonate.
I find myself becoming more and more desensitized to funerals and anything related to death. Caskets don’t bother me in the slightest. Cemeteries do nothing to me. Burials don’t make me cry. This is the second funeral I’ve attended in 2018.
The only thing that can still get me is witnessing the love that the grieving survivors carry for the departed. I can empathize because I know what it is like to lose somebody.
There is something so pure about our love for others.
I thought about the priest’s words: love is spiritual.
He was trying to comfort the survivors. As in, the dead person isn’t completely gone. Your love is still there.
We often think we are comforting people by looking for ways to assure them that their life hasn’t changed. Everything is the same! All is fine. Nothing to worry about.
I never like when people suggest to me that my dead husband is still with us. Or that he’s in a better place. It’s a little hard to justify any of those things when we’re eating dinner as a family and his seat is empty. Or when Ellie has to go to a father-daughter event and her dad is dead. I can’t say that he’s with us when Peter Jack had to lose his father at 13-months-old and literally has not a single memory of him. We want so badly to soothe a grieving person with words that we think will fill their gaping wound, but in reality, nothing you say will normalize the void. All you can do is be there for the person and unobtrusively bear witness to their pain. That’s the only thing they want but don’t know how to tell you.
The grieving person has two monumental tasks: 1) grieve and accept the loss of a loved one, and 2) grieve and accept that their life will never be the same again.
It is difficult to accept a loss when it does such mind-bending things to our brains. We enter a realm where we waffle between what is real and what is imagined. I often questioned whether or not I imagined my life with my late husband. I questioned whether I really loved him. Were we even married? There are photographs and a marriage certificate to verify that I am not crazy, but love is a difficult concept when there is no physical proof of its existence.
I watched a video with Lucy Kalanithi early on in my widowhood. Lucy is the widow of Paul Kalanithi, who wrote When Breath Becomes Air. At the end of this video, Lucy says that her love for Paul, even over a year after his death, “is exactly the same.”
I remembered that resonating with me. I am almost two years past my husband’s death, and I can say that Lucy is correct. My love for him hasn’t changed. But I can’t see it. He’s not here for me to express it to him, and because of that, it can cause me to feel crazy.
Over time, the pain that we experience, caused by grief, will lessen. It never completely goes away, but we don’t live with the bone-crushing pain forever. It fades to a dull ache that we sometimes forget is there.
As my pain faded, I wondered if my love would also fade, much in the same way that I worried that I would forget my late husband’s voice and the little details about him.
We humans seem to have an obsession with things lasting forever. We want to know if our love will be forever. We like infinity. There is a desire to know that we will see our departed loved ones again, which probably drives our hope that love is eternal. The movie Coco taps into something so deeply appealing to us–to be reunited with the deceased. To see our grandmother again. To see our late husband again. How sweet it would be to be in their arms one more time. To hear their voices.
The priest said that “love is spiritual,” meaning it is transcendent; a part of us that exists beyond our physical bodies.
I feel like it is true. I don’t have less love for people who have died. My husband. Grandparents. Friends. Even as the years stretch and memories fade, the love from the relationships have remained and continue to be a source of comfort in my own life. Often the love is stronger in loss because it affects our perspective. I still feel a connection to my late husband, and to my grandmother, to my good friend Mike Quigley, who passed away in 2010, and to all of the other people in my life who I have lost over time. My feelings about them remain intact and only deepened in death.
I started to think more about love transcending the physical. Love is never just physical.
A mother’s love: perhaps the purest kind. A mother gives birth to another human being and knows that she loves them more than she loves herself, even before she meets the baby. She will love her baby even if the child is born looking different than what is expected. Even when the child grows up and becomes something different than what the mother expected, the mother will still love her child. Even when the child moves far away. Even when the child doesn’t pick up the phone. Even the child that grows up and becomes a murderer–that person’s mother may be the only person that still loves that child. No matter what.
How do you quantify that kind of blind love?
Every single day I witness couples who make me wonder: how in the world did they ever get together? Where did that attraction start? One is reminded that the love between partners is greater than anything physical. Physical attraction is fleeting. Real love has to go beyond physical and convenient.
All of this leads me to believe that the physical aspect of a relationship, which can include intimacy, but also is about having the ability to sit in a chair next to the person and have a conversation with them–that kind of physical–does not fully encapsulate what love is.
We have friends whom we love, who maybe on paper would never seem to be likely candidates for friendship, but there is an inexplicable connection that makes you want to be around them. And there are people who we know instantly don’t have that bond with us, and they stay acquaintances. Our true friends are the ones we can see after long periods of time and still ease into conversation as if a day had never passed.
It is difficult to articulate the energy of this kind of connection between two people. We know it by feeling. When our soul connect to another person’s soul–whether that person is a partner, friend, family member, whoever–we just know.
Much in the same way we feel in our gut whether or not we are sitting in a church that feels like home.
The question of whether or not our love is eternal remains.
Do we stop loving our parents once they pass?
Do we stop loving a departed pet?
Do we stop loving a child who has passed away?
Of course not. But does that love last forever, beyond the scope of our own life?
I think the question of whether or not love lasts forever depends on the situation. In the movie Coco, one could only visit on Day of the Dead if a living person remembered them by placing their picture on the altar. I believe love exists as long as there is someone to remember you, or if you left behind a legacy in some capacity to be remembered by, like if you were Michelangelo who painted the Sistine Chapel. Even so, my love for Michelangelo is not the same kind of love that his mother or lover would have had for him.
Perhaps fragments of us continue to exist in the future generations. Our ideas, contributions, memories, love–the living carry bits and pieces of us inside of their being, and they pass it on to others. I tell my children stories about my teta (grandmother), who used to wash paper plates and tell me about how she caught birds in Haifa to eat because they didn’t have money for food. My children have never met my teta, but I like to think that whatever influence she had on me will get passed down to them through the way that I love them. In this way, my teta’s love continues, even if my children can’t see her or even necessarily know what came from her.
Maybe love is how we all stay interconnected. We are one big melting pot of lots of people and their love spanning the entire existence of human beings. Imagine if we could quantify that like we are able to take a genetic test these days. I’d love to know that something about me can trace back to a great-great-great grandfather from a different country, passed down many generations by love.
I often wonder about why we are so obsessed with love lasting forever. I know that people are fearful of death, and that this must be a major factor.
But maybe love doesn’t have to last forever. Maybe love exists to serve a purpose in the world of the living. Just like religion is for the living. And funerals and cemeteries are for the living.
Maybe spirituality is something that helps us connect with other people in the now, and that the most important thing we can do in terms of love is to use our love–past and present–to guide a better tomorrow, for everyone, right now.
We spend so much time trying to hold on to our love from the past, wanting assurances that we will have it in the future, that we often neglect to love in the present. Truly love, not just our family, but also our friends, neighbors, enemies–everyone.
I think connection is powerful. Relationships. The many faces of love: maternal, paternal, friendship, intimate love, neighbors, colleagues, with our pets, for society, for the world, and love for strangers. Love should not be one dimensional.
Instead of obsessing about our love being eternal, maybe it is more important to have an eternal source of love to spread widely, to the people who are so desperately in need of love today.
Inside each of us, we carry a foundation of love that has been strengthened by everyone we have ever loved in the past. This source of love is the eternal spring by which we must spread more love.
This might be how our love with the deceased can last forever–by loving widely, living a life of love, and inspiring others to love. This is how we ensure that our future generations are loved as sweetly and purely as we have been loved.