I have often wondered what heaven will look like – in my head, it’s a simple place, rather like a monastery in Italy, with white-washed walls and simple opened doorways into each person’s room. It’s a peaceful place. I don’t know if that’s what heaven is like. Maybe it looks different to different people.
What I do know is that Christians believe that there is a place we go when we die. Our earthly death does not equal the death of our souls. I know that it is a place where we will finally feel wholly loved and at peace because we get to spend an eternity getting to know Our Heavenly Father.
My grandmother passed away at the end of 2018 after a short illness. I still remember my Dad ringing me just after I woke up to say that she had suffered a brain haemorrhage and could die any time in the next 5 hours, or the next 5 days. I needed to come home as soon as possible to say my goodbyes. I got on the next train and made the long trip to the hospital, where I had the privilege of holding her hand and spending a few moments with her in her final days.
I realise that during this current pandemic, the chance to say goodbye is not there for many. There will be lots of families who cannot spend those last few hours together. Many patients will die surrounded by doctors and nurses who are covered in PPE with only their eyes visible. Consequently, the desire to show human affection and simply hold a patient’s hand in their last moments cannot be granted. So many will die in distress, without proper palliative care and medical staff will grieve for the patients they couldn’t save and the heart-wrenching decisions they have to make about who is ventilated and who cannot be. And that’s so hard. For the one dying, for the families and for the medical staff.
In addition, the restricted funeral attendance instigates a lack of closure for many. One of the reasons that Christians think funerals are so important is because they are for the living left behind, more than for the one who has passed away. They allow friends and family to formally say goodbye and to celebrate the life of their loved one. The absence of this means that families and friends are forced to grieve from afar, much like those who lose loved ones during a time of war, and their pain will be immense.
In spite of all this suffering, I still feel that Jesus offers us hope during times of despair. Because He was made man, and experienced the excruciating death by crucifixion, he is not ignorant to pain. He too died alone as many in this pandemic will. He experienced great pain and suffocation in his last hours. In times of despair, Jesus says: I walk with you, I know the pain you are in but I promise that you are never alone, for I am with you:
‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me, your rod and staff, they comfort me’ (Psalm 23:4)
One of the things that brought me a lot of peace when I went to see my Grandma in hospital was that I knew this wouldn’t be the last time I saw her. As a fellow Christian and a woman of great faith, I knew that she was going to a better place and that one day I would see her again. That place is free from pain and suffering and from the dementia she lived with for many years.
In his last days on Earth, Jesus visited his friends to give them hope for the future. He said:
‘“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”’ (John 14: 1-4)
For Christians, Jesus provides the way to that eternal place of peace. Maybe its walls are whitewashed, maybe they’re not; but it is a place of love and a place that is free from suffering and in our time of despair that is a wonderful hope to hold onto.