[Author's Note: This piece is dedicated to the memory of my grandmother, who passed away last week. The last time I saw her, several months before she died, she told me that she was not a "god-fearing" person. Freethought evidently runs deeper in my family than I had guessed, and in this small way, as in others, I'm glad I can carry on after her.]
For those who are grieving, for those who mourn, and for all those who are burdened with the weary weight of sorrow, I have a prescription.
Find a quiet, peaceful place, a green field of grass where great trees grow and gift the world with their shade. Let it be just before sunset, at that golden hour when the heat of the afternoon is past, when the sky is blue as a pearl and the setting sun hues the world in its last, richest and most transitory light.
Sit against the trunk of an old and massive tree, one that’s lived through summers and winters untold. Lean on its rough, moss-clad bark and feel the slow, patient pulse of the life in the green heart of the wood. Try to clear your mind of thought, and listen.
Put your hand on the earth, tangle your fingers in the soft blades of the grass, and hear it whisper to you. It knows about death, about loss; it dies each winter, when the snows and frosts come. But that isn’t the end of its story: it’s born anew in the spring, remade each year, playing its part in the mystery of eternal renewal that our ancestors knew intimately.
Hear the wind’s call as it passes by, rustling across the grass. It teaches that nothing is permanent, everything is transitory. Life is a pattern of change, of ebb and flow, loss and renewal, death and rebirth. Like the wind, all things arise in their time, sweep by us, and pass on.
Hear a trill of birdsong float down from the green and golden branches of the trees. Their singing should remind us that life itself is music, a great unbroken symphony, and if they do not scorn to play their part, neither should we. In truth, we are not the singers: we are the notes of the melody. There, a birth, a joyous rising chord; here, a death, a plaintive falling note. Each life is a brief theme in the choral harmony, and like every musical theme, it has a beginning and an ending; but if played well, it may inspire exuberant new bursts of music that transcend the original.
Look up to the high boughs of the trees. Look up, because most of us don’t do it often enough, and see their branches rise like pillars through endless halls of green. Look past them to the sky beyond, where the stars glimmer unseen beyond the blue haze of our atmosphere, and reflect on how small we all are in the ultimate accounting, how low we stand in the grandest scheme of things. In a way, our insignificance is strangely comforting. It reminds us to look beyond our day-to-day concerns, beyond the small glories and the small sorrows, and to keep in mind the whole vast cosmos that dwells beyond the private walls of grief. And when our gaze returns to earth, when we descend from that lofty plane back to our own small circle of warmth and light, let it be with a renewed sense of our own purpose in living.
No matter what happens after death – whether we are reborn, go on to another place, or simply cease – there is beauty in this life, as much as we could ask for. There are green fields and peaceful waters, the hush of the dawn and fireflies in the summer evenings, the glory of sunset and the silent, holy falling of snow on dark clear nights. If there is any complaint we might justly make, it is not that this life lacks meaning, but rather that it has so many meaningful things to do and to explore that one lifetime is not enough for all of them.
It’s true, as an old book says, that we live in the valley of the shadow of death. But that should not be a source of fear to us. That proximity is the very thing that makes our lives meaningful, that makes them sacred. The knowledge of our own mortality should imbue each day with an ocean of significance; it should be the signpost on the trail, pointing the way for us to live life to the fullest, with the most awareness, and the deepest joy.
Someday we, too, will slumber under green fields. Our story will be told, our journey will be complete. But in the interim, in this time and this place, we are alive and free. We have a long way left to walk before the evening falls, before the time comes to lay our burdens down. Let us choose our path wisely, and find worthy companions to accompany us along the way. And one more, personal word of advice: take the time to explore the side trails and detours. You’ll find secrets and wonders that will make the effort worthwhile.