Guest Post: And This is Life Eternal

by N. Christensen

I’ve got chocolate chip cookies in the oven.

When I’m overwhelmed, I bake. It’s a coping mechanism that provides an illusion of control. Things happen, and I’m submerged in an emotional deluge over which I have no command, but when I make something with my hands I can immediately see the evidence of my influence – not great, but tangible.

And then I get to eat cookies. I don’t know if it can be called a healthy coping mechanism, exactly, when that’s the end result, but I could do worse.

My earliest memories of baking are with my grandmother when I was young. To be honest, my grandma wasn’t an incredible cook – she was a devotee of that bland meat-and-potatoes-and-cans style of cooking favored by middle-America – but she had a few specialties. Her dinner rolls were buttery and soft; her chocolate cake rich and flavored generously with an abundance of cocoa. She used to help us form little aluminum foil pans and make miniatures of whatever she was baking. Those memories taste like heaven.

My grandma died last night. 

It’s the first death in my family since my faith transition. I no longer believe in an afterlife. I’m feeling a sense of almost-loss there, like a distorted echo of the more clamorous grief I’m trying to distract myself from. I don’t know if loss is even the right word. I just know that where there was once certainty in a reunion with my loved ones, there is now finality. I don’t want that certainty back, but it made things easier.

Or maybe it didn’t. I don’t think I ever felt that I had the right to grieve before. To grieve was to display a lack of faith. A lack of gratitude. The expectation was that we shouldn’t grieve those that passed away but rejoice in the sure knowledge that we would see them again. I remember feeling guilt when I didn’t feel that way. I also remember feeling a sort of smug pity as I watched my nonmember friends mourn their losses and pondered how sad it was that they didn’t have the knowledge that I had.

I don’t miss those feelings.

My family will gather this evening for a memorial service. I won’t be there. I wish I was. I can’t help feeling, though, that even if I were there I’d be feeling the distance just as much as I will tonight over a thousand miles away. Most of my family is still active in the church. They are united in common belief and in the comfort those beliefs give them. Their faith shapes their interaction with each other and with the events that unite them tonight. I am no longer a part of that. 

I’m unsure whether I’ll ever see most of them again.

There’s nothing quite like death to make you contemplate mortality. I think the renewed sense of urgency is universal among believers and nonbelievers alike. We all feel compelled to reevaluate our priorities, to reinforce our relationships with loved ones, to think about how we will be remembered.

Perhaps it’s our unease about our own flaws that makes us want to avoid thinking about the flaws of those who have died. We want to hope that those that survive us will forget our own. But I don’t think it does us any good to pedestalize our dead loved ones. The dead are not here to hear what we say; the living are. The dead are beyond the lessons their lives provide; the living are not. I’m sifting through my grandma’s life and picking out the lessons. Not all of them are positive. Should I feel bad about that? I don’t know.

She loved her family deeply.

She was incredibly generous. I’ve never known someone so willing to give so freely. 

She seemed to view relationships as transactional and felt that she had to buy her family’s love. Sometimes she was right. 

She picked favorites when we were younger. It made sense, given that she essentially raised certain of my cousins, but as children we still noticed.

Her aversion to conflict made her deeply passive aggressive and often resulted in glossing over problems, rather than confronting them. 

She sometimes prioritized the wrong relationships. She was wasn’t proactive in her care of my grandfather when his health declined. She had an unhealthily codependent relationship with one of my aunts.

She instilled a love of lifelong learning in her family.

She had a tendency to accept conspiracy theories, never managing to develop a consistent standard of rigor for her sources. Sometimes they were harmless, like her belief in aliens. Sometimes they were not, like those that informed her political views.

She valued her faith above all – even above her relationships. 

I loved her very much. I am better for having known her. Am I being ungenerous for looking at her flaws alongside her strengths? Will my life be picked over when I am gone? Would that be a bad thing?

I don’t know how to feel about death in general. It’s a thing that happens. People are here and then they aren’t.

But I do think we have a form of immortality in our legacies. 

Our choices shape the way that we will be remembered. Those who mourn us, the lessons we’ve taught, the impacts on others that we have had, both positive and negative – that is our afterlife, and we make it in our own image. And this is life eternal: that those we love may know us, and remember us, and preserve the marks we’ve made on the world. 

The last tray of cookies just came out of the oven. They’re delicious.

N. Christensen is a teacher of some things, a student of others, and a master of little.

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4 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on this tough topic. I myself no longer have firm convictions about the afterlife, so I’m faced with the scary (to me) possibility that this is it. This is all we have. I kind of miss the old hope and comforting idea of eternal families. Thanks also for your thoughts on your grandma’s mixed legacies. I think everyone’s better off when we can honestly evaluate and ponder others’ (and our own) lives, including successes and failures.

  2. Heather says:

    So lovely. Grief is so messy, just like our lives. Embrace it all.

  3. RoseE Hadden says:

    I also am in mourning for a grandmother right now. I honor your grief.

  4. Anna says:

    In a way, “this is all we have” makes me think about the people I want to spend time with before they go. Somehow, thinking we have all eternity to get to know each other, if we can only get through this life, kind of let’s you put off spending time together NOW. But if now is all there is, I want to enjoy time with people I love and not waste as much time on things somebody else thinks is important. If I have eternity, then I can waste time. But if all I have is now, I don’t want to spend my now in a boring meeting.

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