What do we lose by dying?


By Kathy Berken

Decades ago, before desktop publishing, I made simple greeting cards for family and friends from construction paper. This week my growing collection of fancy tools and materials for my renewed hobby has led me to transform my other bedroom to a craft room. It was time to toss nine years’ worth of stuff accumulated since I moved into this tiny apartment!

Way over in the corner, I found two boxes stuffed with old greeting cards and letters from 1999 when I moved to Iowa. I envisioned a huge project of sorting and tossing. So, I set two grocery bags on the floor, the boxes on a table, and dug in. After re-reading hand-written greetings from my cancer years, printed and written-on cards from every holiday and a host of old-fashioned personal letters, I smiled after reading each one and then tossed them into the bags.

I’ll have memories to last as long as I can remember, I thought as I set the bags by the door, planning to dump them into our recycling bins. However, God had other plans. Somehow, I very seriously bruised my right hand, thought I broke something, and had to put any manual labor on hold.


That night, while icing and elevating my hand, I got word that my dear friend Mary Curran had died. The same day, my brother’s mother-in-law died. The next morning, I learned that a friend who moved away had died over a year ago!

The New Yorker has a biographical piece on Father Richard Rohr (Feb. 2, 2020), “Richard Rohr Reorders the Universe,” in which he contemplates his mortality, especially after a heart attack and living with prostate cancer and an autoimmune disease. He asks rhetorically, “What did we ever lose by dying?”

We lose nothing and we gain everything if we have lived a life aligned with grace. But what can I leave to add grace and goodness to the world after I die? The first will be the trove of handwritten letters I almost tossed, which I will store in a box marked “Please save for posterity no matter how tempted you are to throw these away!”

I treasure every handwritten letter that my parents saved from family and friends. There is something deeply spiritual about holding and reading a letter from 80 years ago that my Aunt Anna sent to my mother detailing family news and including a recipe for an apple cake. Maybe someday my great-grandchildren will come across my box of letters and read (in script!) what a friend hand wrote on real paper about life in the early 2000s, and find them treasures, too.

The second is that I will do what a friend’s colleague did before he died from brain cancer at 49. He took each of his family members to a separate favorite place, explaining that after he died, he would visit them right here in this spot. Isn’t that a beautiful ritual of keeping someone close to your heart after they die?

On my bookshelf is a unique book that Mary Curran made for me decades ago. She filled it with her poems and art, and a handwritten greeting on the first page. She also sent me a finger labyrinth she created using her own hand when I was going through chemo years ago. When I use that labyrinth to pray, I trace over where her hand went, viscerally experiencing our friendship connection each time.

During our Lenten journey, I think of Jesus’ journey to his death on the cross. I also think about what he left behind after the resurrection. Not only did he leave us the stories of his teachings, his life and his miracles, he left us his spirit, without which we might wander aimlessly in the desert without a compass. I prefer the grounding faith of a risen Jesus, who lost nothing by dying, and we, in turn, gained everything.

(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009).)

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