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Love Lives On: A Samhain Reflection on Death, Rebirth, and the Afterlife

Author: Jeffery Johnson
Posted: October 17th. 2010
Times Viewed: 6,884

Seven years ago on an evening in early autumn, I was at a nursing home, kneeling at the foot of my grandma's bed. In her late seventies, she was white-haired, with fingers deformed by arthritis, and a once-sharp mind dulled by stroke-induced dementia. My grandma's name was Susie. Her health had begun failing several years prior, and her final bed-confined weeks were painful to watch. Finally, we saw that she was actively dying, and prepared for her departure. As I touched her and prayed that evening, Grandma took her final breaths in this life, and went still. Her soul's journey as Susie, a woman I'd dearly loved, was over, and I spent the next couple years in deep grief, struggling to accept that I had to continue my own journey without her, and trying to make sense of my questions regarding life and death.

Throughout my thirty years in this incarnation, I've watched as friends, relatives, coworkers and former classmates, young and old, have crossed over to the other side, some after illnesses, others due to tragic accidents. The questions still linger. Having worked in health care for many years, I have a hard time understanding how the Great Mother can allow a child to die while Alzheimer's patients linger for years, lost in worlds known only to them. Walking in the cemetery one day, as I occasionally like to do, I came across the graves of a mother and several of her children who had perished in an automobile accident--it was almost more than I could bear. A devout Greek Orthodox at that time, I cried out to the Christian God, asking how it could possibly serve the greater good for young lives to be cut short.

As for what happens to the soul at death, your guess is as good as mine; I've come to accept that no one can know that for sure. Maybe we go to some sort of heaven, as envisioned in various monotheistic faiths. Heaven sounds nice, although I cannot comprehend the existence of a hell where "sinners, " other than perhaps the most vile among us such as murderers and rapists, burn for eternity.

Maybe we're reincarnated, which makes sense on some level. After all, the cycles of nature suggest it. Additionally, the fact that humans may need more than one lifetime to learn the lessons necessary to move on to a higher level of being seems to demand reincarnation. Other aspects of the belief trouble me. For instance, if I'm born with one leg in an impoverished inner city project, is that a "punishment" for being a major jerk in a former life? Unlike some of my friends, I can recall no former lives; therefore, for the gods to try and teach me a lesson in this life for something I may have done in other incarnations seems to make as much sense as rebuking a dog for urinating on the carpet a week after the fact.

One of my favorite comics, George Carlin, mocked (quite hilariously, I might add) any notions of life after death, as do Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others. I respect the suspicion of secularists. However, I'd like to think that we don't go through all the junk we have to go through in life just to die and no longer be. My beliefs are derived from a number of religions, including Wicca, Spiritualism, and Christianity (I'm finding it harder these days to assign my religion a working name) and I'm still sorting out this afterlife business. Yet, I choose to believe that we do survive death in some form, and that we will embrace and laugh with our dear ones at some point in time, never again to be separated by the cold emptiness of the grave. Human beings die and turn to dust, but love lives on; that's the one spiritual truth of which I'm certain.

In her book, Do Dead People Watch You Shower?, medium Concetta Bertoldi gives numerous and often humorous accounts of how deceased loved ones remain near us throughout the remainder of our lives. I've found this to be true. Last spring, when my dad was rushed to the emergency room due to breathing troubles, I felt the presence of all four of my grandparents there, two of whom I never met. I just "knew" they were in the ER with my parents and me, and I felt comforted. Bertoldi states that we don't have to go to cemeteries to talk to the dead, because they are with us wherever we go. I like that. Well, maybe not when I'm in the shower!

Of course, our eventual physical death is only one event out of many in the cycle. As many will know, the Death card of the Tarot signifies more than bodily death. It means change. We die and are reborn many times in any given incarnation. To illustrate, I think about the long process of accepting myself and coming out as gay, and how that's helped me to learn and grow. I had to die to my internal homophobia and fear-based indoctrination to be reborn as a stronger person. Or the moment I realized I was no longer an orthodox Christian, dying to the falsehoods I had been taught by religious authorities I once trusted, being reborn as a devotee of the Great Mother Goddess, and the Horned One.

To use additional examples, we may experience the death of a job, a friendship, or a love. We experience the innocence of childhood, the turmoil of adolescence, the uncertainty and excitement of early adulthood, and then one day, we notice our first gray hairs (I remember being somewhat traumatized when this happened to me in my late twenties!) . We are always learning, always changing from the moment we arrive in this world. The cycle of life, death and rebirth never ceases, never sleeps.

As Samhain approaches, the harvest is being gathered, leaves and flowers are dying, the daylight hours are few, and the air around me becomes dry and cold. Samhain is as good a time as any to ponder death. I always miss Grandma just a little bit more during autumn. She comes to me in my dreams sometimes, and is never far from my thoughts. (I'm sure she's quite happy to know that she will be a great-great-grandma twice before this year is over!) I will greet her and other departed loved ones on Samhain night, sending my love.

I will celebrate the cycle of death and rebirth in the depths of my heart, acknowledging that the same Goddess who oversees the realm of death is always creating new life, transforming suffering into joy and hope. And while the questions remain, I will dance and laugh with the Goddess, celebrating the mystery and wonder of my life, with gratitude for all that I have, all that I've accomplished, and for so many friends who make my journey more interesting and enjoyable.


Jeffery Johnson

Location: Luverne, Minnesota

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