Kim, Seoku Jong, the reporter for the Kyungyang Shinmun, one of Korea’s major daily newspapers, recently interviewed me about my book True Refuge, which is now available in Korean. Since most of my readers won’t be able to read the article in Korean, I wanted to share the interview with you hear.
KSJ: How are you doing? Please tell us what interests you most these days.
TB: My mother, who lives with us, recently went into home hospice care. What interests me is that when we face the truth of mortality—that these lives can pass like a dream, that we will each lose those who are dear—what most matters is love. At the end of our lives, the question that will be central is, “Did I love well?” It’s clear that the more we remember to live this moment, here and now, in a loving, awake way, the more our lives will be truly aligned with our values and our heart.
I’m deeply saddened to be losing my mom – she is a wonderful being, filled with generosity, humor, and kindness. She meditates, as do my siblings, and by being together in the present moment, by loving without holding back, this time of sorrow is also a time of great beauty. This experience is, to me, possible throughout our lives. If we can remember what most matters to us, our lives will be vibrant, creative, loving, and beautiful.
KSJ: The world is full of suffering and it doesn’t seem to end. No one is free from suffering. Your book introduces to readers the moving stories of people who managed to heal themselves despite their wounds, and to a number of meditation methods that can be applied for the liberation from suffering. If you can briefly summarize the essence of True Refuge, what it would be?
TB:While the pain and loss that is part of life will continue, we each have the capacity to free ourselves from the suffering of feeling threatened, separate, or deficient. This becomes possible when we can see past our story of egoic self and contact the deeper truth and fullness of who we really are. The essence of each of us is loving presence – an awareness that is pure, wakeful, and boundless. This is our True Refuge. Those who have healed themselves with meditation have learned to pay attention in a way that has carried them home to loving presence, our true nature.
A key part of finding this True Refuge of loving presence is bringing a kind and mindful attention to all the expressions of our egoic self. We don’t find True Refuge by eliminating the ego; we come home when, like the ocean, we embrace all the waves that arise from our Being. In a very real way, this means embracing the aggression and defensiveness, the insecurities and hurts. What we don’t love controls us. Yet, as we enfold more and more of our experience in acceptance and love, we realize the freedom and vastness of our awakened heart.
KSJ:What is false refuge, and how is it different from True Refuge? And why is it so important to have True Refuge?
Being human is challenging. We’re aware of the dangers we face—rejection, failure, disease, loss, death—and our habit is to try to control whatever we can. A false refuge is a control strategy that might give temporary relief, but in the long run does not serve us. For example, we might overeat to soothe our anxiety or to feel some gratification, but we then feel ashamed or gain unhealthy weight. We might work very hard to prove ourselves worthy, but become overly busy and neglect our loved ones. We might brag or exaggerate to get others approval, but inwardly feel like a fake. All these false refuges actually take us farther from the experience of being at home with ourselves, secure in the essential goodness of who we are.
Let me begin by reassuring you that this isn’t going to be a grim post. But it begins in an area people are uncomfortable with. We all must die, yet this is one inevitability that almost nobody feels comfortable talking about. That includes doctors and nurses, as was discovered in a newly published study from King’s College in London. It surveyed the staff that surrounded dying patients in hospices and found that they witness every common end-of-life experience (ELE). These fall into two types, and one of them will seem very strange.
The first type of ELE seeks final meaning. Near the time of death, people often want to be reconciled with family members who have become estranged, and this desire can be so strong that the moment of death is postponed until the estranged person visits. There is often a desire to put one’s affairs in order and to right past wrongs. It is observed that patients who have been semi-conscious will have a moment of sudden lucidity in which they express their dying wishes before lapsing back.
This whole category of ELE is psychologically intimate, and a significant number of doctors and nurses feel uncomfortable being present for it. Two inhibitions stand in the way. Doctors spend most of their energy trying to extend life, so learning about dying isn’t part of their training. Secondly, it is still considered a sign of weakness for a doctor to feel emotional about death, which leads to distancing himself from the actual experience.
The second type of ELE is labeled transpersonal, although the common word for it would be spooky. Dying patients, far more often than is acknowledged, have highly mystical experiences. They get visions of departed ones who have come to take them away. They sense the transmission of light and love from other realities and can visit those realities. The study found that such ELEs could not be accounted for by the medical state or treatment of the person — the ELE occurred in clear consciousness.
Yet probably the most uncomfortable ELE in this category was observed by the staff, including seeing something leave the body at the time of death, finding that a peculiar synchronicity occurred, such as the clock stopping at the moment of death. It’s more common than you would suppose for relatives who were not present when the dying person passed away to have them appear at the moment of death. Needless to say, modern society is skeptical enough that ridicule and quick dismissal of these transpersonal experiences will arise, even though they have been reported continually in every culture since history has been recorded.
The study makes the point that ELEs, which of course do not occur with every dying person, bring comfort and consolation; they seem to be a natural mechanism that surrounds the climactic event of death. Which brings us to the paradox of how we die. In the 1930s, eighty percent of people still died at home; now more than eighty percent die in the impersonal setting of a hospital. Massive expense is involved in trying to cure the last disease each of us will have, the one we eventually die from.
As medical technology shrouds the dying process, as people become more and more discomfited being around it, nature doesn’t seem to care. Mind and spirit experience death the old-fashioned way. Happily, the paradox resolves itself in favor of death being much less scary than we imagine. There is every indication that we are meant to die at peace, and so we do.
There is one certainty in life – we are all going to die. How and where we die are the only issues.
Will we die quickly or have a lingering death? We don’t know. However, most of us housed people are pretty sure we will die indoors in some health facility or in our own home. In fact, some of us buy insurance so that we are assured of the particular standard of care and facility we prefer in our last days.
However, what about unsheltered homeless people? They live outside and very likely will die outside.
How do I know this? Because over the past several years I have been involved in the end of life care for three homeless friends. I’ve written about Bobby Ojala who passed in late August 2012 and Susan Hunt who died twelve days later in early September. But, Karen Lee Creeden was the first homeless person I helped die indoors.
I first met Karen Lee on July 11, 2010, in Ocean Beach, San Diego, CA. An elderly woman with medium length graying hair pulled back into a rubber band, Karen Lee was sitting on the grass in Saratoga Park. Even from a distance, I could see her distended abdomen.
As I approached her, I wondered how to begin the conversation and decided just to introduce myself, ask her name and inquire how she was doing.
“I’m Karen Lee Creeden,” she said, “and I need size 8 shoes. I just got out of the hospital and I have no shoes.”
“Is that all you need?”
“It would be nice to get some medium-sized warm clothing – it’s cold at night. All I have are the t-shirt and light pants I’m wearing.”
I offered to look for these items, but made no guarantees I could find the needed items in the correct sizes.
Upon leaving Ocean Beach, I called family members and friends who I thought would be sympathetic and would have access to the correct sizes of clothing and shoes. Sure enough, they kindly donated the requested items.
When I delivered these gifts to Karen Lee, she was thrilled. She posed for pictures and had fun modeling her new clothes and tennis shoes. Over and over Karen Lee told me to thank her donors for the much-needed items.
But what to do about her apparent medical condition? I contacted a psychotherapist friend who suggested I ask Karen Lee if she had a social worker and, if so, whether she would give me permission to speak to the worker on her behalf.
Karen Lee did have a social worker and readily gave me her phone number and permission to discuss her case.
The social worker told me what I suspected; Karen Lee was seriously ill and dying. She said she had paid cabs several times to take Karen Lee to hospital after hospital for end of life care, but the hospitals continued to release her.
I offered to go with a friend and take Karen Lee to a hospital and do what I could to get her end of life care.
The results of my efforts are outlined in the following thank you letter I sent to all of the parties who were involved in Karen Lee’s care until her death 24 days later. My letter is a tribute to all of the people and institutions involved in assuring that Karen Lee, an unsheltered homeless person, died free of pain and indoors. It is also evidence of the steps Karen Lee had to go through to die with dignity indoors.
My thanks again to all of those people who provided end of life care to Karen Lee and to all givers of end of life care everywhere.
“August 15, 2010
Dear Concerned Care Givers and Service Providers,
On July 14th, after consulting with her social worker, my friend and I took Karen Lee Creeden to the local hospital where she received excellent emergency care from the doctor and his wonderful staff. Thank you.
After being admitted to the hospital, Karen Lee was expertly cared for by her attending physician, a hospital social worker, nurses, chaplain and staff. Thank you.
I called the president of Alpha Project and he reassured me that ‘no one dies outside’ because of the Alpha Project Hospice Program. His chief operating officer made herself immediately available. Although we did not make use of these kind offers of help, I thank you for your much-appreciated assurances at that time.
After her stay in the hospital, Karen Lee spent several days in the San Diego Rescue Mission Recuperative Care Unit under the concerned supervision of the residential manager. Thank you.
During her brief stay in the Mission, Karen Lee met with a program representative of San Diego Hospice and Institute for Palliative Care who gently assisted Karen Lee in enrolling in this program. Thank you.
At San Diego Hospice and Institute for Palliative Care, doctors, social worker, patient advocates, nurses, chaplain, staff and volunteers compassionately helped Karen Lee. Thank you.
I was going to write individual notes of thanks to each of you, but upon reflection, I thought perhaps one note to all of you might be more appropriate because each of you was an indispensable part of the process of helping Karen Lee transition from this life to the next. And I thank you all for being so supportive of me during this time.
Karen Lee was 55 years old when she died. As you may know, for the last ten years of her challenging life, Karen Lee was homeless. However because of your care, Karen Lee lived the last 24 days of her life free of pain and indoors.
While at San Diego Hospice and Institute for Palliative Care, Karen Lee wrote the following words on the patient white board in her room: “Do you love me as much as I love you?”
Witnessing your many kindnesses and genuine compassion, I can answer her question, Yes, you each loved her as much as she loved you.
May God bless you for your compassionate service for people in need.
These tips come from my experience of being with hundreds of people as they have died and with the thousands of family members who have witnessed this event. Consider using these tips for dying well… and for living well!
10. Talk about what you do and don’t want.
Tell your family, friends and doctors how you want to be treated and what kind of treatments you want or don’t want! Consider a living will or other advance directives so that your wishes will be known prior to end of life choices. Consider your needs: physical, emotional and spiritual because they all impact your final days.
9. Have a life review. Recall significant and meaningful events .
Share your stories either verbally or written with your loved ones, in a journal or on tape. As you do this forgive yourself and others for everything! Let go of judgments. Judging people and events take up precious energy that could be spent loving instead. Release the judgments and allow yourself to be fully present to what is in your life right now.
8. Express gratitude daily – for something, anything!
This will help move you from the context of small self who is dying to connect with the bigger part of Life that is surrounding us always. Expressing gratitude creates a positive shift in our mental state, which in turn has positive physical benefits.
7. Connect with something more than yourself.
Connect with your family, your friends, nature, art, pets, your God, Spirit, your ideals. Allow yourself to belong to something more than yourself so that when you die, you will be connected to those things in which you invested your time and energy.
6. Be authentic and transparent.
Say what you mean and mean what you say. Express yourself courageously holding nothing back. Your vulnerability will be rewarded with intimacy. Allow yourself to feel your feelings – all of them. You are allowed to be just as you are. Give yourself permission to explore this concept and to explore really being YOU! This is the time to do it.
5. Be optimistic and realistic about what is happening.
Expect the best while being prepared for the worst. This can be challenging but from my experience, extremely rewarding. Put your affairs in order. Write your will, choose a mortuary, talk about your funeral, talk about what’s happening in order to bring understanding to your experience and alleviate confusion for your loved ones.
4. Accept what is as it is happening.
No one can really know what you are going through. This is your private journey. All we can do is support and love you. It is true that we are all going to die, but not all of us have the experience of the deathbed. As you find yourself contemplating death and accepting this inevitability look for the places inside that fight against this reality. There is a quote I like that captures this theme, “When we stop opposing reality, action becomes simple, fluid, kind, and fearless.” ~ Byron Katie
As you gracefully yield to your body’s end, you may indeed find peace, joy, and pleasures in the days you have left surrounded by love and loved ones.
3. Say please and thank you.
These words express kindness, respect, and appreciation and will elicit positive responses from everyone who is close to you. The energy behind these words is powerful and respectful. Even if someone has to wipe your butt in your final days you can still maintain a dignified experience simply by the energy of your presence.
2. Look people in the eye.
People generally don’t know how to behave around someone who is nearing the end of life. This is an opportunity to “get real”, to allow yourself to be seen, really seen. Gazing into someone’s eyes without words allows our hearts to connect at a very deep level and can be very satisfying and rewarding.
While you have Life moving through you, allow it to move through you. When you feel tight or anxious: breathe. When you feel sad or tired: breathe. When you feel angry or hurt: breathe. Consciously breathe and open yourself up to the present moment. Allow Life to reveal its preciousness to you for as long as you can and with all of the awareness you have. Live until you die.
I am happy to share more from my years of hospice work and research and my personal transformation of dealing with the sudden loss of my husband at the age of 27.
Thank you and bless you.
Laurel Lewis, a registered nurse and hospice provider who features on The Chopra Well show, 30 DAYS OF INTENT, shares her tips for dying with dignity. The end of life can be an extremely difficult time, as Laurel has witnessed in her many years as a hospice nurse. Her tips address the healthiest ways to confront death and meet a happy, satisfying end.
There are many distractions in the world. This would be a good day for you to focus. Focus on your needs, as well as, the needs of others. Keep the needs of yourself and the needs of the self in balance. You will notice that you and others have this need to keep life in balance. There is a delicate balance in nature to give and receive. Take an apple tree. An apple tree begins to grow. It will then mature. If you pick the apples too soon, they will taste sour. If you pick the apples to late another taste of sour springs forth as a rotten taste. In the middle of these two extremes is the sweetness of an apple’s maturity. The apple time has come to give back before it dies. And oh, how good the ripe tasting texture of an apple whose time has come to give in due season.
You have been in training since the moment you were born. You have been learning and growing from various experiences that teach you and develop you into becoming a mature adult. Along the way, your elders have been sharing with you their wisdom and their love and care. When you mature into adulthood, it is time for you to share with those around you gifts you have learned since being a child. Just like the apple, you are ripe and ready to share with the public those seeds of awareness given to you since birth. You are ready for the community and the world to literally use or taste the talents you have to give.
Dying people have physical bodies that no longer serve them or the community in a way that they did in their prime. Like the apple, everything dies in due season. At the same time, a dying person’s worth to society is probably more valuable to those who care for them. Dying people are becoming more soul than body. They are transforming right before our eyes. Their attention turns inward and the virtues and values they have lived through in their lifetime become more vivid than any other phase of their life. They teach us what is important and share their stories with us from their heart and soul.
Stories create images in our mind and elicit emotions from the feelings expressed by the storyteller. It can be as though you were there as you feel and see inwardly what a dying person shares with you. Memories expressed in tranquility come from the soul. They fill all of us with a knowing that who we are now is a result of our past expressions on material reality. Dying people teach us to live in soul long before we die and plant seeds of eternity inside. When it is our time to close our eyes to the world around us and open them up to a place where eternity itself dwells. We will have arrived where we started in life and call it home.
Have you ever had a sense that there is more to something than what appears on the surface? As a child, you may have walked by a pond and picked up a pebble. Then, energy grew inside you directing your mind to send signals within you and pick up this rock with your hand. As your mind, body, and spirit united, a coordinated effort took place resulting in a thrust of energy tossing this rock into this pond.
The effects of this driving force created a ripple affect on the surface of the pond making its way to the outer edges of the pond. You and I are this same driving force at the core of our being. Everything is energy. We all know its there even though we may not readily see it.
There are five experiences in our life allowing us to touch this energy or our soul.
Remember this: "What is the most human to us, often, is the most sacred."
We touch our soul in the following ways:
1. The Sense of Smell.
When we breathe, we embrace our world. We draw in various aromas into our inner self. It is our opportunity to take in the world around us, and allow it to fill us with its essence. As we breathe, our soul absorbs the world around it through identification with the earth merging into what cannot be seen. It is the experience of spirit expressing itself in unlimited ways.
2. The Sense of Taste.
Taste allows us to tangibly experience different qualities of our world. As a child, we experienced our world through the sense of taste. It was as though our life was meant to be devoured. In a real way, our sense of taste helps us to determine if we like or do not like what is before us i.e. food, experiences, or way of life.
3. The Sense of Touch.
Our ability to feel the world awakens our body. Touch sends vibrations throughout our body in the form of tingling sensations. These tingling sensations are expressions of consciousness helping our body understand the direction of spirit in our lives and our place in the world. It is the home of our soul, yet our body cannot fully contain it alone. At the same time, our body is a symbol radiating our unique expression of our soul.
4. The Sense of Sight.
The gift of sight enables us to take in the world through visual contact with the world around us. As we draw in our environment, we become part of it and it becomes part of us. Eventually, we deepen this sense of sight creating the ability to see from within. At this point, we are able to see through our eyes, and not, just with them. Here, we see with the eyes of soul. We see with the eyes of unconditional love.
5. The Sense of Hearing.
What do we really hear? Sounds are echoes, vibrations interacting with the vibrations of another entity. Behind every sound or word is a tone, a quality of sound, we can connect to within us. The resonance of sound creates signals inside us that we may choose to repel or encompass. As we discern these inner qualities of what appears before us in sound, we are getting in tune with the soul of another person, place, or thing.
When you throw a rock into a pond, I suspect you have a difficult time watching it float all the way to the bottom. The deeper your rock enters the pond, the harder it becomes to see with your five senses. A higher sense of yourself is engaged.
As your imagination and your heart begins to direct your perspective on this experience, your soul is revealed. It is the part of you able to sense and know your rock eventually reached its destination. Although you may not be able to see the foundation of the pond below its surface, you know it is there.
At the dawn of spring, I am reminded by my children the joy of anticipating new life.
They will usually see a flower or two that has made its way through the soil to a world beyond itself. What starts out as a seedling or bulb is transformed by nature’s capacity to evolve.
Inside each of us lies dormant an awareness, an identity, an ability to grow beyond what we appear to be. Every moment, we are being challenged by others and by circumstances to create a life that exceeds our present state of living.
To move toward our highest good takes a willingness on our part to let go of what we know to what can be known in and through us. You and I are part of the Created Order we see around us, and we are participants in Creating Order out of what we have been given to care for.
With this in mind, let us turn to ways our soul can be described in the characteristics that make up a flower:
1. The Ground.
The ground nurtures, protects, and gives birth to a flower. Inside the womb of the ground, life is taking root long before we can see it. Because we cannot see a flower that has been planted in the earth, does not mean life is not being created. To be full participants in our world means to be fully connected and rooted in the world we have been given.
2. The Stem.
The stem begins its growth in the earth below and into the sky above. This part of the flower is the connecting characteristic of the plant. Much like humanity, we are in this world without being fully of it. This creates a sacredness to our lives. It is our unique ability to live and grow in a way no one ever has, is, or ever will.
3. The Flower.
In full bloom, a flower is the illumination of all the life that has preceded it. The radiance and color that pour out of it create life. Notice the next time you look at a flower how you are affected by it. You may notice your heart open and be filled with joy. Or, you may notice more energy and clarity in your vision for being blessed with great beauty.
4. The Spirit of a Flower.
The spirit of a flower is the life force moving in and through it. It is the essence of a flower that identifies with your spirit. This part of you opens from the inside out and becomes ONE with the spirit of a flower. It is the same energy that runs in and through you. Like a flower, you begin to radiate your own soul from the essence of your own being.
Each spring, take the time to notice the part of you opening up to new life. Just like flowers, we grow from the inside out. What illuminates in our life began inside us. We nurture these inner qualities of attention until they eventually take root and grow into our daily lives. The growth that follows is created from what we attend to or hold our attention on within us.
Like the pedals of a flower opening to the world around it, we create a presence of awareness. In full bloom, the beauty or the lack thereof touches the lives of everyone around us. As our inner patterns of attention move through us, the world illuminates the seeds of awareness contained within us for so long. Here, a life is created. It is the life of our soul.
"You’re on the deck of a boat watching dolphins play. The dolphins arc up above the surface and then dive under the water, disappearing from your line of sight. Isn’t there something inside you that naturally knows the dolphins still exist? That they’re just completing that circle under the surface even though you can’t see them anymore? You don’t worry that they’re gone forever. You know they’re somewhere, and that they’re coming back, whether you’re there to witness that return or not. Above, below, above again. Why wouldn’t it also be this way with death?"
– Mary McDonald-Lewis
The way we experience death is a choice.
When my 10 year-old son Danny was diagnosed with a degenerative illness that would end his life within five years, we began a sacred, transcendent journey that led us through disability, death and beyond. Part of this process involved my helping him to understand life and death in a way that would not only be comforting, but would give meaning to his life and help him face his death without fear.
As his illness progressed he lost the ability to speak, and by age 12 was unable to talk in full sentences. We were never able to have an "adult" discussion about death, and I had to feel my way intuitively through his perceptions, emotions and life experience in the hope of discovering whatever beliefs and images he held about the end of physical life.
Like most American children, the only information Danny had about death came from television, movies and video games. Although he couldn’t verbalize this, I imagined that he thought of death as a violent, angry, terrifying event. He’d never known anybody who’d died, not even a pet. His grandparents were alive and well, and although some of the elders in our family had died, they were virtual strangers to him.
Once, when Danny was about six years old, he told me that when people die they go to "Ghost City," a magical place "where kids can drive cars and go to school to learn about fun stuff."When Danny began facing his own death, I wondered if this precious image was still in his mind. Thankfully, our family legacy was not a religious one, so we were free from visions of everlasting torture in hell or a heaven filled exclusively with saved Christians. His mind was completely open, which gave me a rare opportunity to fill it with beautiful, peaceful images, free of fear and judgment.
During the last years of Danny’s life, I searched libraries and websites for material on positive, non-judgmental traditions and mythologies about death, and was particularly drawn to Buddhist and Native American stories. I read these stories to Danny, and imparted to him a vision of death and the afterlife that resonated with my own heart, incorporating my personal belief in reincarnation, the essence of our spirits and the possibility of communication between dimensions. As I wrote in my previous book, A Swan in Heaven… "At night I’d lay by his side singing to him and telling him that I would be OK on earth without him and would see him very soon. I told him that in Heaven he could have any kind of body he wanted, and he could visit me anytime and neither of us would be lonely because our souls would still be together. I explained how there was no such thing as linear time on the other side, and that people can be in more than one place at the same time. I told him everything I knew, everything I’d learned in my metaphysical studies, hoping he’d understand and wouldn’t be afraid of dying."
Religious doctrine, literature, sacred hymns and ageless folk songs impart nightmarish imagery of a "cold, lonesome grave," the "icy hand of death" and "the dreary regions of the dead." Add images of turning to dust, being eaten by worms and a 50/50 chance of an eternity in hell, and the fear of death is securely seated in the minds of many children by the age of six. Even the blissful images of death keep us from a meaningful understanding of the sacred transition from physical to non-physical existence. Sitting next to Jesus on a throne or floating on a cloud playing a harp for eternity doesn’t explain or justify our purpose on earth, and offers us a stagnant, rather pointless afterlife. This leaves us with three basic ideas about death:
1. Judgment – We’ll go to a good place or a bad place depending on our behavior.
2. Separation – We’ll be somewhere else, away from loved ones, where we can’t be contacted.
3. Permanence- We’re gone forever, and all life experience stops.
It has been theorized that the primal fear of death is at the root of all neurosis. The ego’s innate terror of extinction may be the driving force behind extreme behaviors that are designed to establish dominance and control, such as violence, rape, war, abuse and bigotry. The ego cries out, "what will become of ME?" and acts from an instinctive fear of disappearance and loss of identity. One could think of this as a survival instinct, but it begs the question… what, exactly, is trying to survive?
I talked with a woman recently whose teenage daughter was dying from a rare disease. She said to me,
unapologetically, "I like my separateness. I don’t want to merge into the void. I don’t want to relinquish my individuality."
That’s the personality talking. It’s the voice of the human ego wanting to survive, to be recognized and to be in control. The soul knows that it can’t disappear, but the ego — the personality — lives in fear of annihilation. On the soul level we are eternal; we are parts of the whole, like a blob of mercury from which pieces can separate but are always magnetically drawn back to the blob. Our souls have individual paths, tracks, histories and intentions that are acted out when we break off from the source into separate bodies during our incarnations on earth. But we are never truly separate, and always return to source, whether via dreams, visions, meditation or death. If we live in a multi-dimensional reality, then we don’t disappear after death, but continue to resonate on a higher frequency. Embracing this view can help us release the fear-based notions of punishment rather than correction, judgment rather than loving support, and an eternity of idleness rather than limitless opportunity for growth.
This view also gives us a new way of understanding and processing grief. I know a man whose son died in a train collision at age 16. The boy was a talented actor, musician and compassionate animal activist. The father laments that his son died before he could fulfill his potential in these areas, and sees his son’s death as the tragic "waste" of a life that could have contributed so much to the world. But our existence can never be wasted if the work of our souls continues after death. It’s as if we worked for a company and got transferred to another branch of the company in a new city, doing the same work in a different locale. This young man’s love of art and animals, along with the gifts, lessons and growth tools he provided to his loved ones, continues now in another form. His life is far from over. And the guidance, love and energy he radiates from the Other Side provides boundless gifts of awareness and expansion for his loved ones on earth as well as members of his soul family in the non-physical.
We’ve all heard the cliché, “nobody’s ever come back from death to tell us about it, so there’s no way to know if the soul lives on."But that’s not really true… lotsof people have had near-death experiences and communication with departed loved ones, and there are thousands of books on the subject. The Gallop poll reports that 21% communicate mentally with someone who has died, 75% believe in angels, and about 5% of the population has had a near-death experience.
I began receiving "inter-dimensional" messages from my son less than an hour after his death, and these dialogs were the basis for my 2007 book, A Swan in Heaven. Our dialogs continue to this day, and they guide the work I’m now doing as an author and spiritual teacher.I’m certain that the conversations Danny and I had about death during the last years of his life are what made this possible. We looked at death a certain way and it became our reality. The way we experience death is a choice. Where we put our energy will become true for us. If we believe in hell and judgment, we will carry that belief to our deaths and to the deaths of our loved ones, and the death experience will be filled with stress and fear. If we believe that death is the continuation of a rich, expansive journey, then the experience can be understood, embraced and enlightening for everyone involved.
HOW WE LEARN ABOUT DEATH
Most modern Americans never see a dead body unless it’s been embalmed and dressed up for a funeral. But in many other cultures, people are exposed to death throughout their lives. In countries suffering from war or famine, in tribal societies, in cultures that accept death and in most places where people live close to the land, death is not hidden or sanitized.
During my childhood, when an aged grandparent, aunt or uncle died, the younger children weren’t allowed to go to the funerals because the adults thought it would be too upsetting. When I became a mother I could see the flaw in this logic, and true to my role as the black sheep of the family, I encouraged my adult siblings and cousins to take their little ones to these funerals, recognizing these events as opportunities to teach children about the cycles of life and death. My family’s preference for avoidance and suppression did more to create fear and superstition in the children than to protect them from it.
It’s probably fair to say that most people view death in one of these three ways:
1. Heaven and Hell
We have one life to live on earth but our souls live on after death, and if we follow the rules of our culture and our religion, we will be rewarded after death with a conflict-free eternity, recognized by our god and our peers as a good or righteous person. If we don’t follow these rules, we will be judged for our sins and sentenced to an eternity in a place of terror from which there is no return or redemption. When dying or grieving, this view leaves us terrified that we may have failed in life, and gives no reason for our experiences on earth other than an ultimate reward or punishment after death.
2. There nothing but the physical
In this view, there is no such thing as a non-physical world. When we die, our bodies decompose and we’re gone, flat lined, forever. There is no soul or spirit, and no afterlife. The physical body is all there is, and after it dies, there is nothing left. A lifetime of achievements, losses, relationships, growth experiences, issues and creations remains frozen in time, because this one lifetime was our only encounter with existence. When dying or grieving, this view leaves us feeling utterly abandoned as victims of random chaos in a finite system. It exacerbates the feeling of permanent loss for the bereaved, making the grief process more difficult.
3. The soul lives on for the exclusive purpose of growth and awakening
The soul continues to broadcast its energy after the body dies. It continues its journey, sometimes embodied during incarnations, and at other times disembodied and continuing its work from non-physical realms. The soul continues to live and be part of the human panorama. When dying or grieving, this view gives purpose to one’s life on earth, and provides limitless opportunities for expansion, correction and creation, no matter how short or how tragic the current physical life might have been.
Whatever your belief system may be, the ideas you absorbed as a child were handed down by your tribe… your family, your culture, your social circle and your religion. This includes television, movies, books, art, education, relationships and other sources. But as you evolved as an individual and were exposed to new information, through the use of your free will and critical thinking skills, you mixed-and-matched with your childhood beliefs to create the theology you now have. When I was a child, my tribe told me that God punishes bad people and rewards good people. I moved out of that belief in the same way many of you moved through the beliefs of your own tribal origins. It’s an evolutionary process in which we choose to keep some ideas and reject others according to where we are along our spiritual paths. But in the beginning of each earthly incarnation, these beliefs are given to us according to tribal tradition.
I conduct a wonderful little exercise in my workshops that’s a spin-off on the "telephone game" that many of us played in elementary school. In this schoolyard game, a group of kids form a line, and the person at the front of the line whispers a story the person next to her, and that person whispers it to the next, and that person to the next, and so on down the line. At the end of the game, the last person to hear the story recites it to the group, and it is barely recognizable as the original story told by the first person in line.
The variation of this exercise in my workshops illustrates the value of discernment and intuition in helping determine what we believe to be true. In this exercise, I begin by asking three people to leave the room, usually an older person, a younger person and a person who is not a native English speaker. While they’re gone I tell the rest of the group a story, usually a Native American death or creation myth.
Then the first person from outside is brought in and a member of the group recounts the story. Then the second person from outside is brought in, and the first person tells to the story to the second person. After that, the third person is brought in, and the second person tells the story to him or her. As you might expect, by the time the story reaches the third person, the names of the characters have been either changed or forgotten, details have been omitted, timelines skewed, words replaced, and the entire meaning of the story lost. All it took was four people and 15 minutes.
I intentionally choose the oldest person in the room, the youngest person and a non-native English speaker because this is how we have received most of our religious teachings, translated and from language to language, handed down orally from elders to children, carried across constantly-changing political and linguistic borders, and frequently altered according to the personal preferences of the storyteller. By the time writing and printing became possible, the original stories were modified beyond recognition. The teachings of the Buddha were shared orally for 400 years before they were ever written down. The first recorded gospel of the New Testament was written 70 years after the death of Jesus, and 300 years later many of those teachings were rejected by the Emperor Constantine because they didn’t fit neatly into his vision of a Christian Rome.
Many words might have a particular meaning in one language during one period in history, but end up with a completely different meaning at another time in another language. The English word "heaven" for example, is derived from a Middle English word that means to "heave or throw," which is related to the Old English word "hebben," which refers to a handle one uses to raise an object, which may relate to the cliché of moving heaven and earth. The Middle English word "hevi" refers to a state of "heaviness" which may have something to do with heaving, as in "lifting up," which somehow translated into the word "heaven," referring to something that resides high in the sky above us. But what was the original word from the various Bible translations that spanned Aramaic to Greek to Hebrew and beyond? How can we possibly know which word was intended, much less its meaning?
This is true for all the ancient teachings, and this is why we have nothing to rely on but our intuition… the resonance of our souls with the meanings of scriptures, documents, myths, legends and stories. Our intuitive skills are the only tools we have for navigating the ideas that are presented to us throughout our lives. In other words, the only way to know what is true is to listen to Spirit talking to us directly.
When we release traditional notions and replace them with our own innate sense of truth, it is possible for intuition to remove fear, especially as it relates to death. Most of us have experienced dreams, visions and impressions that feel as if we’ve been contacted by loved ones on the Other Side. Many of us have experienced flashes of thought, sounds, verbal phrases, kinetic incidents and even music or scents that we felt were sent to us by some sort of "higher" force, be it departed loved ones, angels or other non-physical guides. Yet we dismiss these experiences as coincidences, oddities or freak events. But if we trust these experiences, if we trust what feels true, we can be led to a whole new way of seeing our world, including the world beyond the physical. What’s the point of spiritual work — seeking, praying, meditating and studying — if not to help ourselves find peace? We are just as able to choose a theology of fear as a theology of love, and in doing so, we can begin to see that in death there is no disappearance and no loss of identity. And in seeing that, a great peace, grace and acceptance can come into our lives, changing the way we live and die.
Let’s return for a moment to the telephone game. One of the myths we work with is an Inuit creation story in which a young warrior steals the sun, moon and stars from the lodge of a greedy chief who wants to keep these things for himself. The warrior carries the celestial bodies into the sky and places them there, and that’s how the sun, moon and stars were created.
This story is no more rational than the idea that we live a limited number of years, have no control over what happens to us, are being watched and judged all the time and when our bodies give out we go to a place in the sky where our deeds are examined and we are sent to one of two places in remote, non-physical locations where we remain for the rest of eternity. In this system, there is no opportunity for growth, correction or healing because we had one chance, and the window was open for a short time. If we blew it, we were done forever.
But what if there’s no time limit? What if there’s no time?
If we are allowed endless "do-overs" and endless time for correction (rather than a one-and-only final punishment or reward), and we’re not graded on performance, then perhaps our primal fear of death wouldn’t be so pervasive and we could stop living our lives like nervous kids getting ready to take their college entrance exams. If the clock isn’t ticking and we’re not being watched and judged, maybe we wouldn’t be so panicked about competing with each other, being right, clinging to people, possessions and ideas, forcing our will onto others and fighting for secure a foothold on earth and in heaven.
“Is it true there is a cure for all illness?
Only if you are wise enough to see death as a cure.”
As a spiritual counselor, hospice volunteer and mother of a child who died at age 16 after a long illness, I am fiercely committed to a belief in the importance of conscious dying and conscious grieving. By understanding that death is neither an enemy nor an ending, the process of grieving the death of a loved one becomes a journey of awakening for the person who has died and for those who remain on earth.
I’ve spent a lifetime studying metaphysics and spirituality, and I believe unequivocally that there are no "good" or "bad" experiences; only the soul’s constant craving for growth and expansion. In this view, illness and death are not experiences to be avoided, but to be embraced with gratitude for the shifting of perceptions and the gifts of growth they provide. In a state of gratitude at this level, you accept every experience with love, because you recognize it as one of your soul’s creations. Even something as painful as the death of a child can be seen as part of a of flawless pattern of perfection, designed to move the family — and the entire soul group connected to that family — forward in unexpected ways.
When my son was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness at age 10, friends and family asked, “Does this change your unconventional spiritual views? Does it make you want to go back to traditional notions of God, afterlife and religion?”
This might have been a good question for someone who’d taken only a few tentative steps outside the religious box during his lifetime, but for me the question was preposterous. The stunning news that my son would only live a few more years actually confirmed what I’d intuitively known since I was a teenager: There are soul contracts. Reincarnation is real. There’s a reason for everything. And we create our own experiences on earth with the assistance of non-physical guides and helpers.
In the early 1960s, when I was 14 years old, a Krishna Consciousness congregation moved into an old church in my neighborhood, and I attended their Sunday feasts and listened to lectures by Swami Bhaktivedanta. At 16, my liberal, free-thinking high school English teacher taught the Bible as literature, and from there, fueled by intense curiosity, I went on to read the rest of it (my family was not religious at all, and this was my first exposure to anything biblical).By the time I finished high school I’d read the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Ruth Montgomery and Edgar Cayce. These teachings resonated with me as absolute truth back then, and over the years, supported by further study and practice, they have been confirmed again and again. So when my son was diagnosed, I knew instantly that his soul had a plan of its own. And it was my intention to honor his intention.
Let’s go back for a moment to those traditional notions of God, afterlife and religion. Had I perceived this situation through that lens, I would have been gripped with fear and helplessness, too puny and unworthy to comprehend the mysterious workings of an all-powerful godwho randomly dispenses good or bad luck, sorrow or joy, wealth or poverty, and in death, reward or punishmentfor his children.
By contrast, my particular flavor of self-empowered spirituality says that we are not separate from God, but are equal parts of the collective energy that IS God, an energy with which we work as co-creators. This work is done “on earth as it is in heaven,” as our souls continue to seek growth and expansion, in and out of the body. The growth work we do during our earthly incarnations carries over to the other side, where we evaluate and create new and effective situations to bring forth the very experiences we seek for our continued exploration. In this way there can be no tragedies, no here and there, no them and us, and no death.
HOSPICE AND ANAMCARA
Over the years, my passion for examining death from the perspectives of both the dying and the grieving led me to an interesting mix of studies and practices drawn from all the usual sources and many of the non-usual ones. One of those sources is the “Anamcara Project,” a unique spiritual education program created by founding directors Richard and Mary Groves. Their “Sacred Art of Living and Dying” seminars have attracted more than 10,000 students from a wide range of healing professions and the general public, including educators, clergy, hospice workers, physicians and metaphysicians. I was attracted to the program when I first heard the term,“spiritual midwife,” referring to someone who helps the dying make their transitions from this world to the next. Because the word “midwife” so perfectly described the role I played in my son’s death, I sought out the Anamcara Project, and it is now an important part of not only my work as a hospice volunteer, but my personal growth path as well.
Anamcara (pronounced ahn-im-KAHR-uh) is a Gaelic word meaning “soul friend.” In ancient times the Celts created the role of Anamcara as a life counselor and spiritual guide. By the 6th century AD, Christian women and men continued to develop the Anamcara tradition inherited from their Druid (ancestors). By the year 1000, Irish Anamcara extended their influence throughout the mainland of Europe, especially among the newly established hospices. The earliest Western hospice tradition, the Ars Moriendi or The Art of Dying, owes much to the spiritual legacy of the Anamcara.
In the early hospices it was understood that death is not the opposite of life, but the opposite of birth. In many of these hospices, such as L’Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune in France, it has been said that it was common to see women giving birth on one side of the room while people were dying on the other side, all guided by midwives, while minstrels strolled around playing soothing music. Death may not be the opposite of life, but it is certainly a part of life, and there are many social and religious traditions that recognize and honor death as the sacred, intimate journey that it is. But sadly, our Judeo-Christian view has created a culture of denial around death, and hospice care is still not generally understood or accepted.
“People think of hospice as an agency,” says Roy Green, chaplain and spiritual care coordinator for the Hospice Center in Bend, Oregon. “The idea caught on in the U.S. in 1975, but in ancient times it literally meant ‘hospitality,’ a process of assisting travelers with their journeys, including the journeys of birth and death. In those times, we lived closer to the land, we saw people and animals die all the time, and there was nothing terrible or frightening about it. The terror came along withreligious doctrine, with the concept of evil and punishment, and hence we now have a fear of deathimbedded in our culture.”
The denial and fear of death is clearly a western phenomenon, and it is especially pronounced in the United States.
“We have so many drugs and so much medical technology that we constantly perpetrate the idea that death can be forestalled,” Green says. “Yet at the same time, Americans are fascinated with death.We want to see it in movies, but only if the images are bloody and dramatic, and only if it’s the ‘bad guys’ who die. These images express our fear of death and feed our denial.”
One of the great losses to our society over the last few generations is the sacred process of caring for our dead at home. Before the industrial revolution, when grandma was dying, she was surrounded by her family, including young children, and after death her body was cleaned, dressed and laid out on a table for viewing by friends and family. The body was then buried in a family graveyard on the family acreage. It was a natural and expected passage, and there is now a growing movement in the U.S. to return to these practices in the hope of bringing death back into light and out of the dark place where it’s been relegated by fear, repression and religious dogma. My son had a beautiful death at home, with his beloved dog and his family by his side. I’d learned from the home death movement that a body can stay at home much longer than modern practices dictate, and we kept my son’s body with us for five hours before calling the mortuary. It gave us a chance to gently and consciously release his physical presence, and to honor the sacred vessel that had done such a worthy job of housing his soul.
“Dying at home creates a more honest space for grieving,” Green says. “Death should be as fearless and accompanied as possible, and grief should be as honest as possible. If we sidestep any of the process, something will be destroyed in us. In end-of-life care we strive for two things with patients and their families… removal of physical pain and removal of spiritual pain. The physical pain is managed by medication. The spiritual pain is a bit more challenging. We work to heal obstacles that may be keeping someone from having a peaceful death, such as forgiveness issues, a belief in divine punishment, or fears about death in general. And we work to honor innate knowledge, inner gifts and the positive experiences in the person’s life as affirmations throughout the dying process.
An honest approach to death and grieving is the key to tapping in to those gifts. Embracing death with boundless leaps of faith can shift the experience of life-threatening illness or trauma from terrifying to transcendent. An understanding of our own divinity and the perfect journey of our souls, supported by guides, angels and loved ones who have passed before us, helps us understand death as simply a journey to another room, where life continues in a different form. Prayers and meditations for opening the heart to gratitude and inner guidance can help us ultimately see all deaths as pathways to healing.
THE HEALING POWER OF RITUAL
The Anamcara Project taught me that in order to fully process grief, trauma or transition of any kind, ritual is a mandatory step in the journey to healing. There are other valuable resources of course, including counseling, meditation, support groups, books and spiritual practice, but without ritual, these other tools only get the job partially done.
In my work as an author, teacher and grief counselor, I’ve been asked many times to suggest simple rituals that can help with the process of facing and walking through painful changes, particularly the death of a loved one. Some of the rituals described here involve the participation of the person who is dying, and some are exclusively for those who remain on earth. These rituals presume that an honest dialog about death has already begun.
Create a Journey Blanket
If you have a loved one who is dying, consider creating a memorial quilt or “journey blanket” for him or her. 18 months before my son died, I gathered a group of friends in my living room for a potluck dinner and a quilting bee. Each person brought a piece of fabric that had special meaning to them, and these — along with pieces of fabric from my son’s own life — were cobbled into a beautiful patchwork quilt, filled with love, prayers and blessings. It was far from technically perfect, with sloppy stitching and uneven squares, but the energy it held was magical. The quilt was very warm and my son slept with it for the next two winters. The following summer he died lying on top of that quilt, and now I sleep and meditate with it, and it has become my journey blanket also.
Get a Tattoo
Many of the firefighters who battled the blaze at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 felt unbearable grief and guilt about the partners who’d fought beside them and perished. Some of them processed and ritualized their grief by having images of their fallen friends tattooed on their backs. The firefighters said, “This way I will have my partner’s spirit with me every day of my life.” When I heard about this, I asked my son (11 years old at the time) what animal he would be if he could choose to be one. He chose a swan, and the following week I had a tattoo of a swan on my left shoulder.
Locks of Love
In the days leading up to my son’s death, while he was in and out of consciousness, I often sat beside him stroking his beautiful, thick hair. One day I realized that locks of his hair would make extraordinary gifts for the people who loved him, so with his permission, I snipped small pieces and tied each with a delicate red ribbon. I’ve given them all away except for the one I kept for myself.
Put it in a Locket
I keep a tiny snippet of that hair in a heart-shaped locket that I wear almost every day.
Open the Treasure Chest and Give the Riches Away
When you’re ready to start going through your departed loved one’s possessions, think of it as a sacred rite of passage. Invite friends to help, and light candles, say prayers, open a bottle of champagne and share memories, stories, laughter and tears as you look through the precious objects. Set aside selected items to give to friends as remembrance tokens, or make something wonderful and creative out of them. One of my friends had a quilt made from her husband’s favorite shirts, and another made pillowcases from her mother’s antique tablecloths.
If the dying person is open to it and is physically capable, he can choose which belongings and special objects he’d like to give to friends and family members. When my friend Betty was dying, she asked her sons to display her special possessions around the house. She was a collector of healing crystals, and the dining room table was covered with magnificent geodes, quartz obelisks, rare stones and other sacred objects. Her friends were invited to take whatever pieces called out to them, with Betty’s full participation and blessing. She even chose to have her memorial service while she was still alive. Friends gathered at her house to tell heartwarming stories about their experiences with Betty, light candles, sing songs and recite beautiful prayers and readings while Betty sat in her wheelchair, beaming with happiness.
Plant a Tree or a Memorial Garden
If you can’t plant a tree or shrub in a public place in honor of your loved one, create a special corner of your yard as a memorial garden. Plant special trees and flowers there, and decorate the space with pictures, sacred objects, religious icons or anything that inspires you. If your loved one was cremated, this is an excellent place to sprinkle some of the ashes. The students at my son’s high school raised money to purchase a magnolia tree, which was planted in his honor in front of the special education building where he’d spent the last year of his academic life.
Send your Loved One on a World Tour
There are many creative and meaningful ways to use cremation ashes (also known as “cremains”) in ceremony, and the ceremonies do not have to be formal or somber. Because my son loved to travel, I divided some of his ashes into tiny, decorated bottles and gave one to each of our closest friends to carry with them on their vacations and business trips. His ashes have now been sprinkled in at least a dozen countries. We’re aiming for all seven continents eventually.
Keep Your Loved One’s Name Alive
Four months after my son died I had my last name legally changed to his first name… Daniel. You may not want to go so far as to legally change your name, but you can find dozens of imaginative ways to keep your loved one’s name alive. Use her nickname as one of your computer passwords, or start a business, charitable group or website using a variation of it. Engrave his name on a paving stone for your memorial garden, or hire a graphic artist to design a logo or icon for the name.
Adopt Your Loved One’s Birthday as Your Own
My friend Dave lost his 19 year-old son Peter to a motorcycle accident 40 years ago. That year Dave adopted Peter’s birthday as his own, and has celebrated it on that day every since. Dave was a community leader in his city, and knew hundreds of people. Each year he threw a huge party on his adopted birthday, and through the years most people had no idea that it wasn’t his original date of birth. He’s in his 90s now, and facing his own death with eagerness, dignity and grace.
On one occasion, I was asked to go into a room and be with a daughter whose Mom was dying. Mom was expected to die not long after I was to enter the room. When I went into the room, the daughter was at her Mom’s bedside. She did die not long after I had entered the room. Her husband was on his way to be with his wife and daughter of this patient. He did not make it in time.
The daughter did not want to be alone when Mom took her last breath. I was called to step in for her husband who could not make it in time to be with his Mother in Law and wife. When he arrived, his wife was so grateful that I had been with her that she shared this with her husband. During this time, I wondered if some guilt on his part may set in with his own personal grief. Just in case, I offered a prayer of release and blessing for their three lives having known one another in this life to include the Son in Law.
Prayer is a wonderful way to invoke the sacred into our lives. Prayer invites a comprehensive understanding that God/Higher Power is in charge of life and of death. It is a reminder how the presence of God’s Spirit supersedes everything and everyone’s ultimate ability to care for us beyond our own ability to do so. In this case, prayer was able to invite Unity in a situation whereby possible individual grief could have been encountered at a later time. Prayer enabled all to participate in Mom’s dying and death from a level of awareness that includes a life’s presence beyond the body itself.
As I write these words, I am reminded how vital prayer is to the Hospice patients and families we serve. Prayer encompasses an eternal awareness and brings forth healing when temporal circumstances could emerge individual flaws in our own psyche. Prayer invites unconditional grace and healing.
For this family, prayer became a way to include all participating in grief to join one another in the path of healing together. It invited what is most sacred in us to seek God for help during a difficult time. Also, prayer gave everyone in the room the ability to seek, and even find, the healing power of prayer by focusing our attention outside our ego enough to know exactly where our strength will come from.
Prayer is a participatory union between those evoking God’s presence through faith in a loving being who knows best how to care for us more than ourselves. It is a relationship based on trust. It is a trust reminding us who we really are as God’s children. And, it is a trust in God’s ultimate Will for our lives beyond our own understanding. It is as though we trust our lives into a Creative order of existence not made with human hands. It is a reminder to each of us just how sacred every moment is and a way of reminding each other who we really are.
Prayer invites us to close our eyes to the world around us and open them up into insight. Here, we see through our eyes what cannot be seen with them. It is here we envision and participate in unconditional love. Innocence is born in this sacred space healing a separation that was never meant to be.