(This photo is taken from an email forward I received full of beautiful tunnel photos, none of which were credited of course. Grrrr. I’d LOVE to give credit where it’s so richly deserved so if anyone knows who took this shot, please, please, please let me know!)
This post is continued, as expected, from Random Hot Tip #4. It’s a looooong one. Sorry. (Although if you think reading it is hard, you should try writing it. F**k.)
Last but not least we come to random hot tip #5:
There’s some version of an afterlife/afterwards for everyone. Pick yours and start making it work for you now.
To be honest, this morning I’m wishing I never added this tip to the list. It’s a loaded subject…something I realized with chagrin as soon as I sat down to write this. Plus, I’m not a chaplain or an atheist or a ghost or anyone else qualified to address either side of this existential topic with authority.
But since I swore to myself that this time I’d follow through and explain every last tip I so glibly tossed out there, I guess I’m stuck with it. I’m only going to share what I observed and then one thought I had about it, hopefully without upsetting anyone enough to make them yell at me. Here goes.
One of the many intriguing things I encountered while working with hospice was the wide range of beliefs about what happens after a person dies. I’d already heard about most of them of course, but still, they take on a whole new light in a hospice setting.
For one thing, they finally matter. A lot. The people I was working with were about to actually find out what happens for themselves, and they cared about it in a way that people who aren’t dying yet just don’t.
In addition, I was experiencing a kind of full body immersion in each belief while hopping from home to home. Working in hospice, it’s critical to understand and embrace the unique beliefs of each home we enter in order to best support the dying person and their loved ones from the foundation they’ve built in their own lives. We don’t have to adopt their beliefs of course…we can’t, there are too many of them and often conflicting besides…but we try to observe every sign of respect, and look closely for whatever value, love, and strength is inherent in each, and then use that as much as possible to deliver our help.
(It really changes you, by the way, learning how to find, respect, and embrace the good in someone else’s beliefs without having to believe it yourself. I can’t tell you how much more mysterious and beautiful and friendly the world becomes in an instant. It’s pretty amazing. Harder to do outside a hospice setting though.)
I couldn’t help but notice how much this particular belief, the one about what happens to a person after they die, influenced the way each person viewed the value of whatever life they had left, as well as shaping how they faced their dying process. While each belief I encountered was absolutely unique, collectively they seemed to break down into three broad categories:
1) The belief that their spirit or consciousness or self will continue in some way afterwards.
2) The belief that their consciousness or personality or sense-of-self will end with physical death (and hopefully that their legacy lies in the good effect they had on the world. Without this second part their depression was pretty pronounced.)
3) The belief that they really, truly don’t know what happens and they’re waiting to find out.
The majority of people around here fell into the first category, which was also the one that seemed to help most with a person’s fear of dying (unless they felt guilty about something and worried about punishment after the fact.)
The number of people in the second category were far fewer and, while they savored the sweetness available at the end as much as anyone, overall I found them less prepared to cope with the many indignities involved, with a greater tendency to devalue their life as their helplessness grew.
And in the end I didn’t see anyone who genuinely believed number three. While there were a number of people who said they didn’t know what happens (actually, they always said nobody knows what will happen) it eventually became clear that really, they believed in one of the other two but were just reluctant to say so for various reasons.
Okay. That’s what I observed. Now here’s one of the main thoughts I had about it.
I think all three beliefs have the potential to wield a final influence that’s helpful or harmful. But in reality, there was a general trend worth noting.
Belief Number One…the one that says some version of the self continues after death…usually did the best job of helping the dying person face and navigate the profound challenges involved at the end of life. These people tended to experience less bitterness about the indignities they were experiencing and genuinely longed for their lives more all the way to the end.
Now, BEFORE ANYONE STARTS SCREAMING AT ME:
I’m not suggesting that this in any way makes Belief Number One a superior belief, or that it means everyone should embrace it. I’m not. That would be utterly useless and disrespectful besides.
What I DO think is that Belief Number One has had tens of thousands of years worth of a head start on weaving some kind of nourishing, helpful meaning into the overwhelming existential realities of dying and death. Collectively, we’ve been living with, exploring, and deepening our belief in an afterlife since the dawn of human history so no wonder it works for us now.
Belief Number Two (let’s leave Three out of this for a moment) is a relative newbie on the scene and has, in some ways understandably, spent more of its time trying to reject the meaning offered by Belief Number One than it has developing an alternative but equally helpful and nourishing meaning of its own. But with the growing number of people embracing this belief I think it’s work that really needs to be done if they’re not to overwhelmingly choose suicide or euthanasia at the end as seems to be the current trend. (I only mention this because killing ourselves and each other, especially in large numbers, can wreak havoc on a society.)
We humans need meaning. It’s not a weakness, it’s just a thing.
I have a couple of friends who believe they’ll cease to exist at the point of death (actually they believe everyone will, but then that spirit of generalization is a quality generally shared across beliefs.) But they also feel a profound curiosity about some tendrils of mystery they glimpsed during an experience with the loss of a loved one. They feel attracted to what they experienced and uplifted by it, but are reluctant to admit it publicly because it’s precisely the kind of thing that’s so easy for the other side to misunderstand, twist, and then crow over.
But in private they share that they’re as moved as anyone else by the symptoms of strange and serendipitous beauty they witnessed towards the end. It’s just that they ascribe the mystery involved to something else, even if they’re not entirely sure what yet.
And then there’s Belief Number Three. Even though I never worked with a patient who truly embraced this belief, I know other people who do, at least so far. (We’ll see if it holds up under the final test.) And, after six years of watching people die, this is the one that I myself have drifted in closest to.
I’ve had a number of people over the years ask me some version of the question After everything you’ve seen what do YOU think happens after a person dies? And honestly? At this point I kind of feel like the sky’s the limit. I suspect anything can happen. Maybe ALL of it happens, just to different people. Maybe some go to Valhalla or Hades or Heaven, maybe some stick around for a while to help their descendents along, maybe some really do just cease to exist while others merge with Nirvana or a mountain or the entire universe somehow. Maybe some reincarnate, or get stuck haunting for a while, while others continue on in some way or form or place that nobody has even imagined yet.
I really, truly don’t know what to believe about all that anymore.
But I’ll share something I experienced numerous times that left a deep impression. It was this sensation of a vast kind of love that tended to show up in the dying rooms. How, when everything else was finally stripped away and all of us were left there, raw and quivering and totally exposed, what remained was this current of love in the room that swept me off my feet and sent me reeling every single time. I honestly, hand to god, don’t know where it was coming from…that’s my mystery. Whether it was just me feeling it, or if it was coming from the other people who were there, or from something outside of us all, or some combination that then took on an existence of its own, I just don’t know.
What I do know is that it’s influence was about as real as it gets. It was tangible and helpful in the most physical way, and weirdly it both seared and reassured me, and sometimes other people told me it helped them, too, and over time as my eyes adjusted to it, I started to see it in a lot more places. Like…well, almost everywhere. And after a while the sheer energy of it started to transform me to the point where I was having a little trouble functioning in the world actually, which is an interesting but different story.
And then one day I realized, to my surprise, that I was shifting away from everything I used to believe in and starting to just believe in that experience of love instead. And that’s kind of where I am now. I have no idea what will happen after I die and don’t really care beyond some mild curiosity. However, I do hope that whatever happens, this big love that gets generated from where-I-do-not-know will still be around because, if it is, I feel like I can deal with anything else.
That being said, the question of “afterwards” feels kind of irrelevant to me right now. The big gift I’m getting out of believing in this love is that, whatever happens next, it’s nurturing and comforting me today. It makes me want to be a better, kinder, more compassionate and understanding person now, it lends me courage and meaning and strength now, and it inspires me to take better care of my little corner of the world right now.
And ultimately, I think that’s something practical and immediate that any of these belief should also shoot for. Whether or not they wind up being true in the long run, if they deepen and enrich and strengthen our lives and communities and world right now then we should develop and embrace them. Because we desperately need all the help we can get while we’re here.
Anyway, that’s my two cents worth. Add a couple dollars and it’ll buy you a beer.
copyright Dia Osborn 2013
After a Crisis of Faith, a Former Minister Finds a New, Secular Mission