My aunt who was lovingly known as the bleached blonde barmaid with a witty and wicked sense of humor, once told me, “Craig, you have to stop telling people what you do for a living. It’s a party kill. Talking about your work has the same effect as farting in church.” I had to admit that my sometimes vulgar, vodka-drinking, chain-smoking aunt was not wrong.
I was recently at a cocktail fundraiser for our city’s symphony orchestra, and someone asked me what I did for a living. When I told the new acquaintance that I work for hospice, the well-dressed patron nearly froze. As she clutched her rhinestone necklace, I could see that my response was clearly not the reply she was expecting. After a brief hesitation she said, “Oh, WOW! That must be so hard. You must be a special person. Nice meeting you. I need to go refresh my drink.” Other times, people will say, “That is so sad. How sad. I need to go find my friend, but you take good care. God bless you.” My aunt was right. I can clear a space faster than air biscuits in a bakery. No one wants to talk to the hospice guy.
We live in a death-denying culture, yet no one knows what happens to us when we die. Sure, lots of folks claim to know, but I have learned that the more confident someone is about the exact nature of an afterlife, or what is required to have one, the more likely they are just another contemporary version of a snake oil salesman. Selling fiction and a false sense of hope to maximize profit or power over people is an age-old human tradition.
Medically, we do have a certain measure of confidence in what to expect during the dying process and what causes death. The process of what happens to the physical body is scientifically provable. Physicians and clinicians understand death from a medical perspective. However, no one really knows or understands what becomes of our energy, spirit, or the stuff that makes you, you. What happens to our essence?
The collection of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding held by humanity is indescribably expansive and immeasurable. And still, the complete collection of all known facts and truth would easily appear as a tiny sand granule compared to the endless ocean of all there is to see, understand, and know.
What most people do know is that they generally despise death and all that it can symbolize. And, to be frank, there isn’t a person on the planet who really knows anything about anything. I frequently tell my staff that there is always much more that we do not know than we do know, so hold onto your opinions with a healthy dose of humility. The longer we live, assumed truths will be outpaced by the number of unsolvable mysteries.
No one wants to lose someone they love. And no one wants to die. Yet, we will all lose someone and eventually, we all die. This inescapable truth often makes me recall my mom’s own words when she was being treated for stage 4 cancer. Shortly after her diagnosis, with raw clarity and tears in her eyes, she told me, “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to.”
At the time, I was 28 years old. Her words hit me hard. They jolted me into the reality that neither I, nor anyone else, could change or control the inevitable outcome of her disease. The only thing we could control was to make sure that she would die in a way that was caring and reflected her values . . . the things that were important to her. But the comfort of caring was not enough for me. Where would death take her? Would she be alright? Would she still sense her family’s love? Mom’s death coupled with the death of my first partner raised questions that now, nearly three decades later, only seem answerable with more questions. What really happens when we die?
According to a highly respected neurosurgeon and author of “Proof of Heaven,” Dr. Eben Alexander, we humans become reconnected with the divine source of the universe itself. Having had his own near-death experience, Alexander says he journeyed beyond this world and encountered an angelic being who guided him into the deepest realms of a super-physical existence.
I’ve been at the bedside of a man who saw angels in the corner of his bedroom just days before taking his last breath. I’ve been privy to another person’s celestial vision just hours before their heart stopped beating. And, I’ve been given signs and messages from somewhere beyond my understanding . . . usually in the form of a vision or an uncanny coincidence that could not have been a coincidence. As an end-of-life professional, I’ve also been party to hundreds of similar experiences that hospice workers have with their own patients.
There are many religious traditions that believe there is an afterlife of some sort; that death is not the end, but a transition. In some cultures the afterlife is seen as being similar to life, while in others there are several possibilities based on a person’s actions in this life. Many indigenous people of the Americas believe that the soul goes on a journey where it will be welcomed by ancestors. Some view death as a transition between two worlds . . . moving from one room to another. Judaism believes in an afterlife but with little dogma. The Jewish afterlife is called Olam Ha-Ba, which means “the world to come.” Traditional Judaism firmly believes that death is not the end of human existence.
Christian beliefs about the afterlife vary between denominations and individual believers, but the vast majority of Christians believe in some kind of heaven, in which the deceased enjoy the presence of God and loved ones for eternity. Hinduism supports the idea of reincarnation based on karma. The three types of karma include past lives, the present life and the lives not yet lived. This karma determines in what entity someone will be born in their next life. Similarly, many Buddhists don’t see death as an ending, but as a beginning to a new life through reincarnation.
Our Muslim brothers and sisters believe that the present life is a trial in preparation for the next realm of existence. When a Muslim dies, he or she is washed and wrapped in a clean white cloth and buried after a special prayer, preferably the same day. They consider this a final service that they can do for their relatives and an opportunity to remember that their own existence here on earth is brief.
Even many atheists, or folks who might not identify with any religious tradition, believe in a spiritual realm and an afterlife. In a Pew Research Center analysis of generational differences and religious views, researchers found that while millennials are much more likely than previous generations to identify as nonreligious, two-thirds of them believe in heaven.
Perhaps the common thread that strings all faiths and all people together is this: There is nothing after life . . . because life never really ends. It just goes higher and higher. The soul is liberated from the body and returns closer to its source. For me, this idea was best captured by a 92-year-old hospice patient named Doris Blossom. In my work as a hospice administrator, I visited Doris frequently. She lived in Davis and often shared her thoughts on life and death. “When we die, what happens to us,” she questioned me? “As a child, I was told we went to heaven or hell. Not by my parents, but somehow that idea came through. I didn’t accept that idea, because it was too vague. So now, at 90-plus, the question again arises. And I think I’m satisfied with the idea of recycling.”
According to Doris, “Our bodies, whether burned or buried, go back into nature to be used by nature as it pleases … to feed creatures or to enrich the soil. But what happens to the soul? We don’t even know what the soul is. I think the soul is everything that is important, but not physical. It’s our thoughts, feelings, memories, beliefs, and connections. Does the soul belong to the body or does the body belong to the soul? We need this body, perhaps as servant to the soul. Still, this feeling of separation persists. It seems that over time our body ages and weakens, but our soul becomes stronger and more active.” Perhaps we come from energy and we go back to energy, but no one really knows what that energy is.
Doris, who was bravely standing at the jumping-off point, believed that eventually, the soul is restored and ready to be used again. She told me, “Time and place may not matter. Perhaps not even gender matters. Was I once a cat in Russia? Or, maybe something not yet created in a distant future? Well, it is fun to speculate but hard to write about. We can only deal with the now, and now is a good time to rest some more.”