In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. John 14:2 (KJV)
Years before his death, I began grieving the slow disappearance of the father I grew up with. As his cognitive functions slowed down, he still maintained great physical health and strength, riding his bicycle ten to fifty miles every day, carrying heavy objects, and mowing the lawn with a hand mower. Shortly after being diagnosed with dementia, however, he was hit by a car and suffered several broken ribs and a concussion. For a week he didn’t recognize my mother. Recovery was slow and partial; he lost many functions. After a year struggling to care for him at home, my family placed him in a nursing home where he could receive the care he needed and be visited every day. His mind and interests became more childlike; he liked to wear funny hats and hold stuffed animals. It took him ninety minutes to eat a meal, even when someone spooned the food into his mouth. His words became few; then he stopped speaking.
Our family grieved the departure of the father we had known. At the same time, we loved the person he still was, glad that he smiled when he saw us, looked into our eyes, and held our hands. His losses clarified his essentially sweet, loving nature.
When my father’s health took another precipitous decline in March, however, we faced new territory. We had been looking into the past to remember the wise, loving, funny father we had known. Now we needed to look forward and face the mysteries of dying and life after death. My family members and I had different experiences, ideas, and beliefs about these things. In the week before Dad began his active dying process, when my mother and I said good-bye to him for the night, we prayed aloud together, one of us on either side of his bed. At the end of our prayers, Mom told Dad he could go anytime he was ready. Every day, however, I was telling him that my brother Chris would be driving up from Florida soon. My three sisters, who lived closer, had been visiting frequently in the winter and spring months, but Chris had not seen Dad since the fall.
My mother and parishonners from St. John Bosco Roman Catholic church often prayed at Dad’s bedside. One afternoon I was with him when a visitor sang to him the entire Divine Mercy Chaplet, using the beads on her rosary to know how many times to repeat, “For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.” On the day the Pope had declared to be Divine Mercy Sunday, my mother and two of her friends came straight from church to recite that Chaplet at Dad’s bedside.
My own prayers during the days sitting with my father were mostly silent and spontaneous. In my heart and mind, without words, I lifted him up to the Light of God’s endless love. I thanked God for my father’s good life. Aloud, I told him that I loved him, that everybody loved him. I thanked him repeatedly for being a wonderful father, for taking good care of us all, for being kind to so many people, and for his courage to be different from the norm. At moments I felt sadness; tears welled in my eyes. One afternoon I told him that I regretted not accepting a particular gift he had tried to give me. Then I thought about things my father might regret and told him he could let go of his mistakes, that God forgives everything, and that his essential nature is pure love.
At some moments, I felt inwardly nudged to stop trying to do something, even with my thoughts and prayers. Be totally present. When I did that, especially during his moments of wakefulness, I became more aware of how present Dad was, looking at me and everyone who came into the room. Eating, drinking, coughing, breathing. He was present. In paying attention to my father’s quality of presence and his clear gaze, I became more aware of the presence of God with us.
My Quaker faith has helped me find a way to be with the living and the dying, but has not offered clear teaching about what comes after death. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s book of Faith and Practice advises all Friends to attend to end-of-life matters in advance, including Living Wills, Powers of Attorney, and wishes for the disposal of the body. It also contains helpful guidance for conducting memorial services, something Quakers do in a powerfully moving, beautiful way. The Quotations sections of Faith and Practice include four passages related to dying and death. First, a prayer for help in letting go into God when one’s death approaches, then a moving account of being with a dying child, then some advice about meeting old age with courage, and death with thankfulness. One passage says we can learn to recognize death as “another movement of growth into the fullness of the knowledge of God.” (143) Back issues of Friends Journal and several Pendle Hill pamphlets offer Friends’ personal experiences with approaching the end of life, being companions to the dying, and grieving the death of loved ones.
Mostly Friends have emphasized helping God to bring in the Kingdom of Heaven here, on Earth. In A Living Faith, a contemporary Quaker theology, Wilmer Cooper describes a range of beliefs and attitudes held by Friends about life after death. In the section entitled “Facing the Final Frontier,” he writes that rather than speculate much about death, most Friends focus on, “living, at this very moment, in the presence and power of God so that we will be sustained in whatever death brings.” (153)
Early Friends had a clear sense that there is life after death, and that salvation is available to all who turn to the Light of Christ within. In a vision, George Fox had been taken to see into the Paradise of God. Others described entering into eternal Reality while still walking on earth. While being marched to the gallows in Boston, condemned to death by Puritan magistrates, Mary Dyer told onlookers she had been in Paradise for several days already, and that she was receiving indescribably wonderful “sweet incomes of the refreshing Spirit of the Lord.” Her two companions, Marmaduke Stephenson and William Robinson, wrote letters before their deaths describing how they had already become joined with the divine Fountain of Love.
Another early Friend, Mary Penington, wrote to her children during the grave illness toward the end of her life, telling how glad she was that she had already put her affairs in order. She described how she prayed during episodes of deep physical pain, and said she hoped and trusted in God’s mercy, guidance, and support throughout all she must yet endure. In a Testimony she wrote after the death of her husband, she gave a remarkable account of her experience at the moment of his death, saying that she accompanied his spirit a little way into the heavenly realm:
[S]uch was the great kindness the Lord shewed me in that hour, that my spirit ascended with him in that very moment that his spirit left his body; and I saw him safe in his own mansion, and rejoiced with him, and was at that instant gladder of it, than ever I was of enjoying him in the body…. (qtd. in Gwyn, Seekers Found, 294)
Having read about the experiences of Mary Penington and many others, I wanted to be present when my father died, not only to accompany him, but also, perhaps, to glimpse into the next life. However, after a week in Virginia, I needed to go home. My sister from New York had already arrived, and my brother would arrive soon, after selling the car that had broken down along the way. My mother and siblings kept vigil with Dad for the next four days, sending me news via text message and photographs. Dad stayed alert long enough to gaze lovingly at my brother when he arrived. Then he turned inward as he slowly traveled out of this life.
In the weeks since his death, my prayers for my father have continued. Perhaps his soul ascended directly into Heaven. I believe, however, that after death souls continue to grow and to journey ever more deeply into God’s love. For some, parts of the journey after death may be difficult. In the first weeks, I thought that perhaps my prayers might assist Dad in his journey. Now, a few weeks later, I have a more peaceful sense that he has been released into divine Love. When I sit to pray or meditate, when I focus on the Inward Light, I imagine him to be joyfully merged with it, liberated in fullness.
The End of Life and After: Have you been a companion to a loved one who was dying? How has your faith supported you in this? What is your understanding of what happens after death?
My new book, Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. It’s designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their experiences of the spiritual journey. QuakerBooks provides discounts for books ordered in quantity.
© 2016 Marcelle Martin