Here, There and Everywhere

Posts tagged ‘faith’

Deathbed Conversions?

I wish death happened like it used to in the old movies. You know, those deathbed scenes were everyone gathers around, makes amends, say their good-byes and drift off with visions of God and the angels dancing in their eyes. But it rarely does. Deathbed conversions are few and far between.

When death approaches or has taken place, most people live their faith, their beliefs (or their disbelief) in a God or the hereafter the same as they have the rest of their lives. If they believe in some creative force that is more than what we can see, they continue to do so through sickness and loss. If they believe God has a plan for everything that happens and that Jesus is their savior, they continue to do so until their dying breath. If someone feels that there is no God, supreme being or spiritual meaning for anything on earth, they hold on to that belief even after their loved one’s body is buried deep in the ground.

A friend once told me, as their mother was dying, that no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t make herself believe the same as her mother had all her life. She desperately wished she could. She wanted to understand and connect with her mother before she passed on in a way she had never been able to. She said that for awhile she pretended to believe as her mother had, but she knew she was pretending. She even went to her mother’s church and read the same readings and scriptures, without any change of heart.

A client I met with for several months repeatedly expressed her frustration that her husband had never believed in God and she couldn’t understand how he had gone to his death without accepting God into his life. For over forty years she had tried to convert him and get him to go to church, always believing that someday he would see the spiritual light.

A member of my family had an understandably difficult time when my uncle killed himself and sincerely worried about his soul, wondering if he was suffering as much after death as he had during life. They prayed that God would forgive my uncle and provide the serenity that had always seemed to be just beyond his reach. The only way they could make sense out of the tragedy was to believe that he was “in a better place”. They had always believed that God provides happiness and peace and used that faith to provide personal comfort, safety and meaning.

Belief in God, a Great Spirit, Nature, Jesus or some other religion or spiritual path, doesn’t mean that people don’t question, argue, bargain or get angry with that in which they believe.

A colleague of mine was enraged when her daughter was killed in a car accident. She felt like her religious tradition had lied to her. “How could a loving God let such a bad thing happen to such an innocent child?! How could He take her at such a young age?!” She still believed in God, but couldn’t make sense out of what had happened. “Somebody was responsible for this!” she said. “There has to be a reason!” She prayed to God for an answer. “But all I could hear was myself talking to the empty air,” she explained. “It took me years of asking ‘why’, begging for an answer, before God gave me the strength and understanding to live with not knowing.”

Another client blamed God for allowing her abusive ex-husband to survive and live with his alcoholism, while her hard-working, kind friend died from liver cancer. She overflowed with unanswerable questions. “Why didn’t that son-of-a-you-know-what get this awful disease instead? Why does my friend have to deal with this? What did she ever do? Why? Why? Why?” Her friend continued to work as long as possible and remained true to her sweet loving self until her death a year and a half later.

As in most sweeping statements of finality there are exceptions. Occasionally someone reacts to death and loss differently than they have lived the rest of their lives.

A woman I interviewed a few years ago said she made a bargain with God and it changed her life. As the car she was driving hit a side rail on the freeway and begin rolling over and over she said, “God, if you let me live to raise my young son I’ll dedicate my life to you.” She had never believed in God and didn’t know where that had come from, but she said she heard a voice answer her that said, “Yes”. She survived the accident, continued raising her son as a single parent and never forgot her promise. Though she had always seen herself as a selfish person, she started thinking of others and became involved in a number of charities. When her son was killed ten years later she never wavered from her promise and used her son’s death to inspire her to do even more of “God’s work”.

Death and grief can crack open our hearts. They can change our perceptions of how we see the world. They can wake us up to the reality of pain and suffering in ways that we never thought possible. Within the midst of such grief and pain we can reach out for comfort, look within for guidance and find compassion and forgiveness from our religion, community or sense of personal responsibility.

Mourning can be a catalyst for clarifying our values and deepening our understanding, but it doesn’t mean we will throw our beliefs out the window or change our spiritual faith. We need not despair over our usual conditioned human response to loss. There’s always an old movie with a good deathbed scene we can find at the video store, take home and imagine ourselves saying our good-byes, making last minute amends and being carried off to the heavens!

Are You Dead When You’re Dead?

How we feel, believe or think about what happens to us after we die matters. It matters because our thoughts about the after-life often effect how we react too and live in the present.

If one believes that their physical reality and what they see, feel and experience with their senses is all that exists, then the thought of its termination and our bodies decline may be frightening, if not down right terrifying. If someone’s faith tells them there is something that continues beyond the known physical realities of the world or takes them to a place of peace and happiness, they may be less inclined to fear their own mortality or that of others.

Both ideas and beliefs, that something continues beyond death and that nothing does, may also help us live more in the moment and appreciate the short, precarious lives we live or create continuing anxiety about how things are or where we would rather be.

The reason the word may is italicized, is because there is no omniscient law of nature, physics or human response, that such beliefs in life after death or solely in the material world, causes only those stated or expected reactions. We are far more infinite than the stars in our complicated, yet simple, desire for understanding, comfort and reassurance about the unknown and what happens to us after we die.

When I was a teen, I used to believe strongly in reincarnation. At the time, it made sense. As I grew older my beliefs shifted from Yoga and Eastern traditions to Quaker activism and social responsibility. Then it changed again and again, from the Catholic Church to Judaism and from Eastern Buddhist belief in transgression and karma, to natures continual recycling of all forms of matter, including human beings. Whatever I was practicing or following at the time, was my reality. Each exploration into the afterlife or spiritual nature of humanity gave me some answers and experiences I could hold onto, make sense of and say, “This is it! This is the truth! This is what happens!”

In my early work with hospice and later as a chaplain at the hospital, I met a number of people who had been clinically dead and revived or resuscitated. After hearing their stories and reading research that had been done with thousands of others who had had similar experiences around the world, I “knew” that some part of our consciousness or awareness as human beings (at least in the first few minutes) continues.

Most recently, after my acquaintances with a number of people whose cultural background and/or religious practices, has worshiped and spoken with deceased ancestors, I have begun to send blessings to and bring into the present, those in my family who have preceded me into death.

Because of my work as a grief counselor I have been granted the opportunity to explore the question of life after death with many people. Here are some of the answers, thoughts and beliefs that have been shared.

“Those who believe will find everlasting peace with Jesus and the Saints.”

“God is the only answer. I know they are with God.”

“My loved one always felt at home by the sea. When we scattered their ashes in the bay, it felt like he had been buried in his church.”

“As a Tibetan Buddhist, I know my wife went through different Bardos (spiritual worlds) and gained enlightenment. She is such a compassionate loving being.”

“When we’re dead, we’re just dead. There’s nothing more and nothing less. That’s why it’s so important what we do while we are living.”

“I believe there’s a white light and the peace and joy are indescribable.”

“The bible tells me there is heaven and hell. I hope I’ve lived a good life and go to heaven. I know my son is there waiting for me.”

“My sister has come to me several times and told me she’s alright. I have no doubt that she’ll be there to meet me when it’s my time.”

“The Lord is the way, the truth and the light. I will be with my Lord Jesus.”

“Maybe I’ll see my parents when I die, but I don’t know. I tend to believe that something better is waiting, that there’s something more than this, but I couldn’t say for sure.”

“It’s all chaos. There is no rhyme or reason. I have no idea what will happen after I die.”

What’s your experience been? What do you think happens after we die? What have you been told? What does your family believe? What does your religion teach you? What do scientists propose? How has the media portrayed the after-life? Is death less frightening because of your beliefs? Do you think anybody “really” knows before they die what happens after we stop breathing? How does your belief or thoughts about life after death effect how you live your life now? Does it matter?

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