Charles Cowherd is a Seminarian at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. Charles had a twin brother who served in the army: 2nd Lt Leonard M. Cowherd III. In 2004, Charles’ twin brother was killed in Iraq. His body is buried in the Arlington National Cemetery and his twin goes by there often just to be close to him.
What is it like when your twin dies? Charles says that it is like having a limb amputated but worse. Half of yourself is gone and you are convinced that it is the better half. Charles’ grief and his longing to find out what happens after you die led him deep into the Christian tradition and eventually to Seminary to become a priest.
Charles wrote, “His death weighs on me daily. I will never be truly whole again.”
Almost all of you have experienced that pain that we call grief. It is real. The people that we love will die. We will die. And we should not be afraid to talk about them. We should not be ashamed to speak their names.
I will never forget, when I was a Seminarian here at the Cathedral, a woman’s 22 year old son was killed in a car accident. One month after the funeral, I took her out to lunch. She had on dark glasses. I asked her to tell me about her son, John and she burst into tears.
“No one wants to talk about him! They try to remind me of other things, as if by mentioning him they will be bringing up painful memories but don’t they know that he is all that I think about! Thank you for saying his name…”
When someone we love dies, they leave a great big hole. And we are afraid, so afraid that this is the end. We are so afraid that we will never see them again. We are afraid that our relationship with them is over and we are ashamed of how much this hurts. It is impossible to describe the waves of grief that crash upon a person. The waves of this frightening truth: that the one we love is gone and will never come back.
But we are believers. We are people who follow Jesus. We believe that death is not the end. We believe that when we baptize a child, that child becomes part of God. That child is welcomed into life eternal. Given eternal life! A bridge is built to heaven itself when that water touches the forehead of a child. A bridge to heaven.
The communion of saints is the name that the church gives for everyone who we love who has died. Those people who will be standing there when you get to heaven, standing with a huge sign that says WELCOME HOME! The ones who will run to you with their arms out. "Finally! At last! You made it!" they will cry out. Our loved ones are alive in God. And if you truly believe that, then we must and should not only speak their names but communicate with them.
That sound spooky doesn’t it? Talking to the dead? But it is not spooky at all, it is spiritual. As believers, we must embrace the mystery of God and accept the fact that there is so much we do not understand.
Here is a Christian perspective on death….
When someone that you love moves far away, that person does not stop being your mother, or brother or best friend. Your relationship does not end, it just changes. If you truly love them, and if you make the effort, the relationship continues. What happens is that you are forced to use new forms of communication: you go on Facebook, you send an email or text, you learn to Facetime and Skype. The relationship with your loved one is not over, it just changes. They are still your best friend or mother or brother. There is never a doubt about your love for them. You just need to learn to communicate differently.
When someone dies, the relationship does not fundamentally change. Death is just a new kind of distance, a new kind of being. And if you want to stay in relationship with those who have died, you can. All you need to do is learn how to communicate.
My good friend Jody Giles is writing a brilliant book. It is called Missing Pieces. It is about how you can begin to communicate with those you love now so that they will hear from you after you die. In the book, she recommends that you begin thinking about and writing down all of your precious belongings and giving them as intentional gifts when you die. Your physical things can become pieces of a love letter that you send to everyone you love after your death. You can write notes to accompany your gifts. Not just your money but every single thing you own can become part of the masterpiece that you leave behind to communicate your thanksgiving for those causes and people that you love. For example, you can give a friend your grandmothers lamp because that friend as been a light in your life…
But what do we do when we are the ones left behind? How can we communicate with the people we love who have gone on to God? You can start by simply saying the name of the one you love. Speak that name with pride and courage! And yes, talk to them. They can hear you in the same way that God hears you. They are now part of the communion of saints, the community of heaven. Just like you can pray to God, you can pray with them and for them. But you must make the effort and you must be willing to listen. Live in prayer, open yourself to the possibility that your loved one may be listening. Their love for you is not always obvious but you will experience it with patience and time.