I’m often asked if I believe in the afterlife. Perhaps because I’ve lost a child, which many believe is the worst possible thing that can happen to a person, my opinion on the subject carries a little extra weight. Or perhaps the asker is simply seeking a pebble of “proof” to add to their own ponderings on what happens after death. Or maybe it’s just plain curiosity.
I usually say that I hope there is an afterlife and, from what I can tell, my response seems to be a bit disappointing. But there is significant meaning in that answer because, for me, hope is everything. And it’s taken me a long time to get from the depths of despair caused by losing Emma to a place where I can hope again.
Hope has reignited my spiritual journey. For many years, I equated spirituality with religion. And, as a busy wife, mother, and corporate professional, nurturing that spirituality became a distant memory. Sure I attended Sunday School, was confirmed, got married in a church, baptized my children, and then took them to Sunday School for awhile. Then life took over. I was busy, busy, busy, and I hadn’t the time to think about whether God was present in my life or what happened to you when you died.
Then Emma died.
After that tragic event, an immediate, persistent and intense question for me was, “Where did you go?” She was just here, vibrant, happy, making plans for her sophomore year of college and her first apartment. The night before she died, she had shared pizza with her father and brother, helped her best friend plan a trip to New York, and Skyped with her older sister. Then she went to bed and simply never woke up, dying in her sleep from some unknown cause. How could that be? How could she simply cease to exist in the blink of an eye?
I had a vague idea of heaven but I couldn’t envision my daughter there. I couldn’t imagine her in some pristine place, wearing a flowing white gown, possibly sprouting angel wings and trading her signature “Wait … what?” for sudden wisdom. When I finally came to realize that no amount of bargaining, anger, or despair could bring her back, I began to imagine her continuing to laugh, love, and yes – live, in a place that wouldn’t scare her, change her or overwhelm her. I began to hope that the world I created for her – initially in my head and then in my book, Tomorrow Comes – was real and that someday I would see her there.
And thus began my new spiritual journey. It’s not really a religious one, but it is transformational. I have opened myself up to so many new possibilities that I’ve grown in significant ways. I now hope, for example, that the cardinal that was so persistent in following me during a recent trip to the dog park truly was Emma, and that the last leaf on her tree really did wait for Rod before it dropped and he could catch it. I haven’t arrived at “believing” or “knowing,” and I may never get to those places. I haven’t quite figured out the relationship between hope and belief, or having faith, and no one will ever truly know what happens when you die. For now, though, I hope. And that is enough.