Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

As You Were


This week last year was pretty awful. Surprisingly, it was already bad even before my mom died suddenly on the Saturday evening, which obviously made it one of my worst weeks ever. But before that happened, I got the news earlier in the week that an old college friend, Linda, had died of cancer. I had only recently learned that her cancer was terminal, and I didn’t expect the end to come so soon.

I was shocked when I got that call, but I didn’t cry. I’m weird about tears — I cry easily, but not always at the things you’d expect. Not yet guessing how many more tears I’d be crying before that week was over, I felt terrible about my friend’s untimely death but I didn’t immediately burst into tears.

A day or two after Linda’s death, Cape Breton singer Rita MacNeil died, and the radio was filled with her songs and tributes to her. Now, I liked Rita’s music, but I wouldn’t call myself a major fan. I’d never seen her in concert; I admired her as someone who’d made something beautiful out of a tough start to life, and I was sorry she died. That was pretty much it. But then, the day after her death, I saw this cartoon and it brought tears to my eyes:


(in case you don’t recognize them, the other figures in the cartoon are also dead musicians from Eastern Canada. But you probably guessed that from context clues).

A few hours after I saw that cartoon, I was thinking of it while driving when Rita’s signature song “Working Man” came on the radio. I started crying so hard I almost had to pull over. When I did pull in to my own driveway I just sat there bawling uncontrollably for awhile. Fortunately I have a degree in psychology, so I was able to make the not-very-stunning deduction that my tears had more to do with the friend I’d just lost than with a musician I’d sort of admired. Music is a big emotional trigger for me, and I often cry when songs come on the radio or we sing hymns in church that awaken memories. But in this case it was the cartoon that stood out in my mind. Why, out of all the tributes to Rita MacNeil I’d seen, did this one move me to tears — and why did that unlock a deep well of grief for the friend I’d lost but hadn’t yet cried over?

It reminded me of another cartoon honouring another dead celebrity — again, someone I’d thought was talented but had not been a devoted fan of — that also moved me to tears. A week or so earlier, writer and movie critic Roger Ebert died, and this cartoon made me choke up a little:


The whole “recently dead celeb arrives in heaven” theme is very popular in tribute cartoons (regardless of the religious beliefs of the celebrity involved or whether they believed in any kind of afterlife at all). And these two really got to me, especially as I reflected on my own losses during that week.

The existence of cartoons like these is evidence of something I see all the time when people are faced with death — even people who have no religious beliefs and are skeptical about any kind of afterlife. We have a deep-seated need to believe, or at least to pretend, that the life of the person we loved is going on much as it used to, on some other plane of existence, in company with those who’ve already died.


When my co-worker Jeff died suddenly, one of the messages a student left on his classroom board read “I hope the coffee’s better up there, buddy.” (Our lunchroom coffee was pretty horrible at the time). Nobody inquired too deeply into where “up there” was and whether good coffee was a feature of eternal bliss. We all understood it as an expression of the desire to believe that our co-worker was still, somehow, himself, and enjoying the things he’d always enjoyed, like a good cup of coffee.

As a Seventh-day Adventist, albeit one with a sometime-shaky faith in eschatological things, I don’t believe our beloved dead are anywhere conscious at the moment, but I do believe in some kind of afterlife beyond the Resurrection Day. I can’t fathom what the life might be life, though, and I think it’s highly unlikely that it’s just an exact copy of this life without all the hassles. The Bible certainly doesn’t promise that — most of our images of heaven are more folk-religion than Biblical. If you read Isaiah 65:19-25 as being about heaven rather than an idealized earthly Israel, then it does seem to promise some of the features of everyday life on this earth — but it’s the only Bible passage that does so.

For the most part, I think, believers and non-believers alike have to put a big question mark over the idea of a heavenly existence after death — even if we’re sure it will happen, we can’t really imagine what it might be like, and surely life in a perfect world would have to be different in some very fundamental ways from the life we know here.

But what we want — what we all express, whether in cartoons or eulogies or sympathy cards, in the days after someone dies — is more of this life. We want everything to be back the way it was, to imagine that for the person we loved, existence continues as it always did, except that we can’t see them.

I thought about this as I was preparing the tribute I gave to my mom at her funeral. Seventh-day Adventists, as I said, don’t imagine our beloved dead continuing to consciously co-exist with us on a heavenly plane, so a whole wealth of popular platitudes was denied me. But I made use of the popular trope anyway. Drawing on my mom’s well-known love of going for a drive to see the sights, I imagined her on Resurrection Morning, glad to see Jesus arrive to take her to heaven but hoping He could go for a little drive around on the way there. I liked that image. It was the right one to end her eulogy on — something that made people smile and kept a little bit of her personality alive in everyone’s memory.

And that, after all, is what we’re all doing with our pictures of heaven — keeping those we love alive for a little longer. Hope in an afterlife is a wonderful thing for those of us who have it, but it does not promise what we want most, which is for things to not change, to go back to the way they used to be.

The truth is, regardless of what we believe or don’t believe about the afterlife, there is only one place where Rita is still singing with the band. Only one place where Siskel and Ebert are still reviewing movies together. There is only one place where my mom is still going for long drives just for the fun of it, where Linda is forever singing into a hairbrush with great dramatic flair. One place where my friend Jamie is still laughing with me as we over-analyze song lyrics, where my co-worker Jeff is still enjoying a cup of coffee. Only one place where my Uncle George is still regaling us with stories about family history and my Aunt Alicia is still doing the same for the other side of the family — and my mom is still skeptically wondering, under her breath, how much of the story was made up and how much was true.

There’s only one place where things remain unchanged, where all these things are still going on. And it’s not heaven.

That place is called Memory. It’s the most precious thing we have.


14 thoughts on “As You Were

  1. I was also raised Adventist, but I’m now raising my son as mainstream Christian. With that comes the belief that when we die, we go to be with Jesus. What it will look like, we have no idea. Can’t imagine. But there is more comfort in the continuance than there is in the oblivion for a while. At least to me. I want to believe that our loved ones aren’t just resting, but actively being comforted after the hard times on earth. Different perspectives, but it all comes down to the same thing. We want our loved ones to be okay–whatever okay looks like to us individually.

    • Agreed Patty — we all want to believe our loved ones are “OK.” I have never found the idea of consciousness after death comforting; I’d hate to think of my mom and other loved ones being aware of the suffering we are going through without them, and I love the idea of “falling asleep in Jesus.” But I think the idea that stirred me most in writing this is, WHATEVER the afterlife is like, whatever has happened/will happen to our dearly departed, it won’t be an exact repeat of this life. Which is what we all really want — more good time doing the things we loved with the people we loved, in the familiar places and ways. And for that we have to rely on keeping their memories alive.

      I so much love the Doctor Who quote, “We’re all just stories in the end.” I hope to keep the people I loved alive through the stories I remember and tell about them. As for what comes afterwards … I’ll leave that to God.

      • I take comfort in the idea that the after life ISN’T a repeat of this life, too! This life is just too hard.

        But you’re right–those memories are the story, and that’s what we hold onto, tell and retell. That’s how we pass down the sense of family to the next generations, through the story. While the afterlife is in God’s hands, the story is the last thing we can hold onto.

        I treasure the stories about family members I never met or hardly knew. They connect me.

  2. I love your last 4 sentences very much. Liked the rest of the article, but Love the Memory quote.

  3. Oh, Trudy. How right you are that we so want to think of our departed loved ones as still existing somewhere – I never really realized how much comfort that popular idea holds till my parents died. I had my mom’s ashes here in my study for about a year before taking them back to bury at my brother’s place in Florida, where she had spent her last few years, and I used to talk to her frequently.

    I think it is Norman Wright, a British theologian, who shares a belief similar to ours, except he reads it as the dead are “resting” rather than “sleeping” – and in the blessed presence of God.

    I’m getting closer to the place where I may soon “find out” what happens after death – even though I may not find out, as far as this world is concerned, till Jesus returns. Pretty exciting thought!

  4. And I forgot to comment on the memory theme – that’s why I’m busily working away on writing my family stories. I’m so glad I still remember a lot of the stories my parents told me, but so wish I could ask them a lot of questions I didn’t while they were alive. I’m trying to answer more of those questions for those I will leave behind.

  5. I appreciate your take on this. While we may or may not share the exact same take on the “afterlife” we do share the belief that the eternal joy we will experience with our Savior is beyond our wildest imaginings. Certainly the puerile notion that life will be much as we know it in the “here and now” is of little merit, limited to what little comfort it might bring to the grieving one.

  6. Enjoyed your blog. The title picture is important for me. Some of us have tone and tons of memories and some are more important to keep alive than others. I’d like to see Coaker’s work much better remembered. Keep up the good work.

  7. I certainly appreciate the thoughts expressed above. We all want to think that our loved ones are doing fine after death. My father died about 12 years ago. He lived a life devoid of the presence of God. He had a stroke at 39 and died of cancer in his early 60s. Before his passing, as an ordain elder and minister of the Lord, I offered Him the grace of Christ which he readily accepted. I am confident that the Lord will deal with him mercifully and be just also.

    Why do I add the concept of justice to this conversation? The Word of God has the answer:

    “9 Surely his salvation is near those who fear him,
    that his glory may dwell in our land.
    10 Love and faithfulness meet together;
    righteousness and peace kiss each other.
    11 Faithfulness springs forth from the earth,
    and righteousness looks down from heaven.
    12 The Lord will indeed give what is good,” (Psalm 85:9-12, NIV)

    Notice the word, “righteousness” linked to salvation. The concept of salvation is one that is espoused by many Christian denominations and outside of Christianity as well. The concept of justice in salvation is one misunderstood by many Christians, however.

    The thief on the cross makes a startling revelation:

    One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:39-41, NIV)

    The words of the thief on the cross makes the matter of salvation clear:

    1. He feared God
    2. He recognized that he was condemned to death justly
    3. He also recognized that his sentence was the reward for his deeds. In his case, his evil works.

    It is the same scenario with King David who acknowledged his sin. He also recognized that sin justly required the death of the sinner.

    Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

    Nathan replied, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the Lord, the son born to you will die.”

    What is so devastating about death that we should fear it? Once more, the Scriptures have the answer in the words of our dying Lord as He hung on the cross, an innocent man.

    “About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).” (Matthew 27:46; cf. Ps. 22:1)

    Not that Jesus believed that God had abandoned Him just because. He felt, in Him, physically, emotionally, spiritually, the devastation of sin, a complete and eternal separation from God.

    Death is not a sentence that promises anyone to see greener pastures on the other side. Death is terminal, period. That’s why the wages of sin is death; it is final capital punishment.

    My father has been separated from me and has been, temporarily, separated from His Maker who has already forgiven Him. If Jesus felt separated from His Father, what makes us think that we cannot go through separation after death.

    Death is a curse. Death is condemnation. Death is horrible. Death devastates us. There is nothing pretty about death, no matter how many think it turns out on the other side. Death is the reversal of birth. At birth we are formed, at death, our form disappears.

    “When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.” (Psalm 146:4, NIV)

    “…The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7, NIV)

    Let us contemplate the sentence we all received in Eden:

    “…The Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:16, 17, NIV)

    “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4,5, NIV)

    So, who do you believe? God, who tells us the if we sin we will “certainly die” or do we believe Satan’s lie? ““You will not certainly die.”

    There is nothing mainstream or not mainstream about the biblical concept of death. Why? Because no one can infer that death implies an afterlife. The word (Gen. 2:17) in for “you will die” [tā·mūṯ] in Hebrew (תָּמֽוּת) gives no room to assume that death implies more life. Death is death, terminal. One ceases to exist.

    In Genesis 3:4, the deceiver insists, (לֹא-מוֹת, תְּמֻתוּן) [lō-mō·wṯ tə·mu·ṯūn], “you shall not surely die.”

    Who do you believe? I choose to believe my God. If I sin, the wages of my sin require my death.

    Thank God there is hope for the Christian and the believer in Jesus Christ. We may die and be separated temporarily, but is it only for a short time. It is only for a moment. At the twinkling of an eye, the dead in Christ shall rise first and we will be with our Lord forever more.

    For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18, NIV)

    If makes no sense for Jesus to return to earth to raise the dead if they are already in heaven.

    Even Jesus declared after his resurrection: “Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. ” (John 20:17, NIV) He was separated from His Father on Friday, rested in the tomb on the Sabbath day, and resurrected on Sunday morning. Then he ascended into heaven as recorded in the Book of Acts, chapter 1, not before.

    Yes, the wages for my father’s sins required his death. But he is in the care of my God, who died for him so that one day, he would be resurrected to be reunited with his family members and with His Maker.

    “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23, NIV)

    This is what my Bible teaches:

    In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory.… (1 Corinthians 15:52-54).

    According to Paul, immortality comes ” last trumpet,” the return of our Lord. as we read 1 Thessalonians above.

    The truth of our salvation and the cost of it in Jesus Christ, has never been mainstream. The devil has lied from the beginning in telling us that we do not die, but promised us wisdom and the status of gods. Since then, spiritualism has flourished. This heresy and distortion of reality assumes the living can speak to the dead and pseudo-Christian religions that have bought into the veneration of dead saints.

    We Christians are guilty having participated in Satan’s lie because it feels good to us to reinvent what happens after death for our emotional comfort. Rather than believe the Word of God, we have believed our assumptions and our presuppositions.

    The Word of God could not be more true: “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” (Isaiah 8:20, KJV)

    Whereas, all the opinions expressed here are respected. It saddened me to think that our emotions can easily be used as an excuse to invalidate God’s Word. The finality of death is not a “mainstream” concept, agreed. It is, however, a biblical concept. That makes all the difference in the world. I welcome any evidence to the contrary.

    Do we make null the Word of God by the traditions we believe in or do we believe the Word of God?

    May the Lord give us peace as we morn the loss of our precious loved one. Wherever we believe they are, the truth of God’s Word cannot be altered. Our Savior died because if He did not, we could be forgiven. Someone had to pay the just requirement of the Law with death, the Someone is Jesus.

    We are justified because Jesus paid a just price. We are made righteous because in Jesus dying for us, we can, by faith, substitute our life that leads to death to eternal life in Christ. We are saved because He not only died but resurrected to live forever more. Salvation cannot be possible unless we recognize that Jesus suffered our condemnation and death sentence so we may some day be with Him never to die again.

    “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23, NIV)

    That is the hope we all have. In our Lord, “righteousness and peace kiss each other.” In making peace with our God, justice is met, rather than put aside. The concept of justice in salvation is a biblical concept. By faith we are justified so we may be found worthy of eternal life in our Lord and Savior. In Jesus, death is swallowed up in victory!

    Blessings, V 🙂

  8. Excellent post Trudy. Looks like you scared Victor into giving you a Bible study. But I think letting go of our Uncle Arthur Bedtime Stories images of heaven is both Biblical and shows more faith in God. We can’t control life after death and, if you trust God, you don’t have to.

    • Jennifer, I think it was in something by C.S. Lewis that I first read that most of our images of heaven do not come from the Bible but from religious literature, hymns, etc, and that there’s very little in the Bible to support our image of an afterlife which will be much like this life with all the negative things removed. I was a young Christian then and very shocked by this, but on reading the Bible I think he was right about that. I do believe death is not the ultimate end, but I think it’s a bit of hubris to imagine that we can say exactly what will come afterwards.

  9. My comment began with a validation of all comments that have been made so far.

    “I certainly appreciate the thoughts expressed above.”

    The comment also ended with a blessing and respect for all of our loved ones who have departed.

    “May the Lord give us peace as we morn the loss of our precious loved ones. Wherever we believe they are, the truth of God’s Word cannot be altered. Our Savior died because if He did not, we could be forgiven. Someone had to pay the just requirement of the Law with death, the Someone is Jesus. ”

    The comments made here are precious to me because we all share a common faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore just as every one here has taken the liberty to express their opinions, I assumed that since this is a public forum, I would also be treated in the same respectful manner. The Golden Rule was not invented by anyone but by our Lord.

    Moreover, I have presented texts from the Word of God that give us all hope. I did not invent those words either. Nothing that was written was designed to minimize anyone nor was it meant as a personal comment to anyone specifically. And no, it was not meant as a Bible study to Trudy who opened her heart so graciously and generously to us all.

    For this reason, I find the following comment inappropriate and a bit condescending for:

    “Looks like you scared Victor into giving you a Bible study.”

    If anyone needs to make a comment, it is not wise to abandon our Christian deportment to refute anything that was posted. The world subscribes to that standard. For some strange reason, it is reported by some analysts, that the Internet has a way of making some of us write demeaning things we would not dare to say in person. Disrespect is never welcomed, online or in person. The Word of God is there to help us learn together, not to minimize who we are as frail human beings. The comment accomplishes nothing good and it is not intended to be redemptive.

    Why invalidate or minimize a comment that is intimately tied to how I handled my pain as I experience the devastating death of my father? All other comments made here, even without any biblical support, are precious. We are not here in a “who-is-right contest” but to share our common humanity. It just so happens that I love the Scriptures to inform my life and, as a Christian, I love to share Scripture, our common platform for our faith.

    This is the reason why I choose to inform my personal view of life with God’s Word, for I choose not to live this life by bread alone but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God.

    If anyone here chooses to express their views, I am bound by Christian decency, no matter how my view differs from anyone, to acknowledge those views, right or wrong, because their views are important to them. In this case, we are all here expressing our pain over the loss of our loved ones. I expressed my pain using the Scriptures to help my thought processes, for my assumptions must be questioned at all times by the Word of God.

    When Paul sensed that Peter was acting in error, he asked him: “How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” He did so based on one premise: “I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.” (Galatians 2:11-14) Paul acted responsibly.

    Now, Paul had a strong character. We can see that in the sharp disagreement with Barnabas over John Mark. (Acts 15:36-41) Yet, the end result was that even in the midst of conflict, he endeavored to do good for the cause of God. The Lord blessed him: “He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.”

    Would that our comments would be full of blessings and for the purpose of building up the precious and suffering people that make up the Body of Christ.

    I’ll leave you to process Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians:

    Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7, NIV)

    May the peace of Jesus which transcends all understanding, be with you all.

    Blessings, V:-)

  10. Thanks for posting Victor; I appreciate and respect your contributions just as I do everyone else’s. I think some people may find your responses a bit long and in-depth for the comments section of a blog but so far I’ve never had any problem with anything anyone has posted in my comments section.

    • Your insight is quite welcome, Trudy. I’ll keep your comment in mind for future posts. Thank you for your candy reply.

      I must admit, C.S. Lewis is one author I have not read so far. I am aware of a number of quotes, but I have never read his books.

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