What happens after we die? From the earliest ages when a child first becomes aware of death, this question emerges. In talking to my own children (ages 6 and 5), they sometimes express a reluctance to go to heaven because their toys won't be there. I try to reassure them that heaven is the most wonderful place that they can imagine – better than the most perfect day here on earth. Yet, the question is natural, the reluctance is natural. For all the trouble that we sometimes confront in this life, it is familiar and comforting, and there are moments that are just amazing. Do we really have to leave? Do we really have to die? The prospect is scary.
Regina Doman wrote a wonderful book, “The Angel in the Waters.” It tells of a baby inside the womb. The baby is happy and warm and has his angel by his side. Yet, the baby is reluctant to leave the security of the womb to visit the great big world outside. The baby asks his angel about the world on the other side. The angel responds, “It is not like this world . . . When you go there, you will find out.” After the baby is born and enjoying his new surroundings, the angel also promises that “there is another, bigger world outside this one. Someday I will take you there.” We don't remember our own births, yet I am certain that it was frightening. Those first gasps of air, those first cries, that ultimate protest shouting “I'm scared! Put me back in!” But then, there is the warmth of a mother's arms and a whole new bright world to explore. Dying is a second birth, an introduction into a world we can't even begin to imagine.
What will be on the other side? Who will be there? What will we do? As we experience the death of loved ones, we wonder whether we will see them again. The world beyond is veiled in mystery, yet we believe that it does exist. We believe in heaven and hell and the purification of purgatory. We strive for heaven, yet wonder how heaven could possibly be heaven if we are separated from loved ones who have sadly turned away from God. We hope for the best for all who have died. We trust in God's mercy and pray for salvation for ourselves and for all people. And yet, we wonder.
We do have some hints, some glimpses into the world beyond. We have the testimony of Jesus himself who spoke of eternal life. Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Lazarus is rewarded for his patient suffering in this life while the rich man had to suffer forever for his selfishness. In addition, Jesus promises the good thief on the cross, that “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43). He tells his disciples, “In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.” (John 14: 2-3).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity – this communion of life and love with the trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed – is called 'heaven.' Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.” Yet, in this communion, we do not lose who we are. We do not become absorbed into some great big energy field, or even into God himself. Rather, we continue to be who we are, but in a more glorified form. We even believe, that like Christ, someday our bodies will be resurrected as well because to be fully human is to be both body and soul. But these will be new bodies, perfect bodies, bodies without the aches and pains and diseases. We will be us, only better. We will understand. We will live in perfect harmony with God's will. It will all make sense.
Yes, death is frightening. Like the baby being born, we would rather we didn't have to go away from the place we know and love. Yet, we trust in God's love and believe that what awaits us is far better than anything we have ever experienced.