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Chapter 1: The Next Question
Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.
-- Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
Where will I go when I die?
What will it be like when I get there?
Will I return to the living?
Will I disappear forever?
In the mid-1980s, two great friends and a client of mine died. They did not know each other and were as dissimilar as any three people could be. Yet in some way their experiences, and my experiences at their deathbeds, formed a complete whole. My friend Henry died in peace, facing the inevitable open-eyed and easing his friends along into the same intimate relationship with death that he was forging. My friend James died in anguish, afraid and bewildered, alienating most of those who cared for him, and clutching money to his breast as if it were the only means of saving him from the terrible unknown. My client Joanne had a need for just those ideas that were coming to occupy me increasingly at that time.
I was present at these deaths, was changed by them, and have long contemplated the lessons and insights, joys and sorrows, fears and mysteries that rose up in me at the bedsides. Many times over the ensuing years, in both my professional life as a psychotherapist who works with the terminally ill and in my personal life, I have felt grateful for these experiences. I am now involved in the work of describing the beliefs, images, and functions of the afterdeath in the cultures of the world. These three people brought me up close to this threshold.
Facing Reality: Three Views
At age forty-five, Henry received the news that his newly discovered cancer was beyond treatment with a days-long silence, an integrating silence that allowed the reality to sink in. He was sad, he was uncharacteristically quiet, and he withdrew from friends and family for more than two weeks while he consulted with physicians and healers of every stripe. All he saw confirmed the terminal diagnosis. Perhaps instinctively, he knew that to resist reality was to add to the inevitable pain and sadness of finding himself at the end of his life, but easing him into accepting reality was the fact that Henry believed there was more to life than met the eye.
During his period of withdrawal, Henry had his answering machine give out this message: "Do not call me unless you really want to. Do not call with any cures you know about. I have already tried them. Do not call with any procedures you know will work. I have investigated them. Do not call me if you are in any way confusing me with your dead father, brother, mother, friend, or whomever, and do not call me to cry and tell me how you will miss me. Call me if you can be there for me, and if you can't, it's okay. I send love."
I called Henry immediately on his inside line. "Oh, Hank," I said, using his nickname. "I'm so sorry."
"Didn't you get my message?" he asked with irritation. I had never heard Henry irritated but I knew it was to be expected.
"I got your message, but when another friend died, and I learned about..."
Henry cut me off.
"No, Sukie. Call when you can talk to me, not somebody else."
"Listen! It could help!" I pleaded.
"Sukie, I'm dying. I have six months. Stop," he responded.
I stopped. But if I couldn't help by being with him physically, if he didn't want "consoling," and if I couldn't offer information, there really was nothing I could say. I started to cry. Henry hung up. This was his trip, his death, his understanding of the human journey.
But I couldn't stop calling. The idea of losing touch with this man was simply intolerable -- I wasn't going to let it happen. I called every day. Having poured my morning coffee and lit the best cigarette of the day, I would pull the phone to the couch, be sure the vase of flowers was placed in my direct line of vision so as to help calm me, and dial. Henry was always up early or never slept, I was never sure which, and each call found us individually perched and waiting: cautious, careful.
"So how are you?" I asked as soon as he answered. My tone was light, casual, as if this were an everyday call.
"Better," he responded, a smile in his voice. "I was just thinking that if I'd known in my twenties that I was going to die now, all that anguished stuff I went through in my twenties -- remember? -- would have been a mid-life crisis!"
I started to laugh. It was funny. Really funny and sharp. What he said was true in some crazy, witty, sweet way. He didn't at all avoid the fact that he was dying. The truth was there, but wrapped in something humorous that brought both relief from and acknowledgment of the truth. Not a man with a strict religious belief system inherited from his parents, Henry had evolved his own philosophy of the universe, its meaning, and the course of its evolution. His philosophy was one that would be familiar to many in the nineties: a combination of Christianity, Buddhism, and New Age spiritualism. Henry subscribed to an evolutionary model of the universe in which reality was continually moving toward a higher level of consciousness.
Henry had long believed in this forward progression and on a deep level felt himself to be part of it. When his doctor and the others told him sadly that there was nothing more to be done for him, what arose for Henry, through his shock and sadness as he told me later, was the understanding that he could evolve no further in his body and that it was time for him to move on to another level of consciousness. Henry contemplated what lay ahead and concluded that he had in some way been chosen, or assigned, to move on, and that there was meaning in his personal death. He was reflecting on ideas and hypotheses he had been thinking about for a long time, but now his thinking was far more intense than the intellectual browsing and musing that had brought him into contact with these ideas. In the face of death, his ideas were enlivened with a new urgency, a new longing. He asked, he looked, and he anticipated that he would cross boundaries of the unknown and search out alternatives to the unthinkable: the total and permanent disappearance of Henry.
Henry also believed in a hierarchy of beings, and that a host of manifestations of consciousness wiser and more highly evolved than ourselves awaited him after death. He had felt their presence, had meditated extensively in order to make contact with them, and so had confidence that he would be welcomed into a community -- nothing clearly discernible, not even something easily imaginable, but still a collection of welcoming presences who would ameliorate the loneliness of leaving all his loved ones behind. It was a profoundly comforting idea to be moving toward a cluster of beneficent forms of consciousness as Henry gradually left the people he loved.
The members of Henry's family and all his friends were amazed at the equanimity with which he faced his death. Few of us shared his beliefs and many wondered how on earth these ideas could have arisen in the mind of a pragmatic New York businessman. But there was no mistaking Henry's curiosity as to what was to happen to him.
At the time of his death, Henry's family was there to witness its indisputable power in the visions it brought him and to give him comfort and ease. At the moment of his death, Henry opened his eyes and said with difficulty, "Oh, am I still here?" When told he was, he responded in a very weak voice, "Where I'm going is so beautiful."
James, who was forty-five when he died, had been raised in the Southern Baptist Church, with much music and constant reference to the life beyond death, to heaven and the presence of angels, to the Promised Land and a better life a'comin. But nothing of his religious upbringing had stayed with him or penetrated his spirit. James highly valued intellectual achievement and considered matters of the spirit to be childish fantasies. Long habit had left him with a rational explanation, dismissive disinterest, or a funny line for every aspect of reality that could not be fully explained. He grew up to be a very cultured man, spoke six languages, and was extremely well read, well traveled, well respected -- he was the cultural commissioner of a large urban city and in touch with the many cultures that made up a great city.
Yet when death became inevitable for James, he found -- to the surprise of all who cared for him -- that he had no tools, no comforts, no healing thoughts. Far from wondering what he faced, what aspect of reality he was entering, James trembled and shied away. Regarding death, he had no access to meaning and certainly none to comfort or reassurance. The idea of his inevitable demise inspired nothing but sheer terror in his heart.
James's sufferings were unrelenting, and he placed enormous burdens on the people around him. With no sources of comfort within allowing him to accept, even for a moment, this inevitable phase of his life, James needed his friends and family to lavish on him unlimited soothing and attention. Though we longed to talk -- just talk -- James needed us to shoo away the terrors of the unknown, which rose up in the distinctly earthly forms they had always taken. His scariest bogeymen were fears regarding income taxes, ambiguities that may have crept into his will, insufficient insurance provisions. In his last days and hours, James obsessed about these legalities to the exclusion of all else -- and to the exhaustion and frustration of those who hoped to sit with him and share a farewell.
For all his learning and his wide experience with the cultures of the world, James had no real referent regarding death other than the legalities that surrounded the end of a physical life. He was unable to wonder about or imagine a reality encompassing more -- more than nothingness after death -- and therefore, in his last days, found no doorway into comfort, meaning, or hope. In the face of death, all James knew was fear.
James was my best friend of twenty years, and I knew he had no hope of surviving his exotic cancer. It was not that I believed that this or that small dietary or body work idea would absolutely prolong his life. It was just that I wished -- we all wished -- that my most vital, responsive, fascinating friend could have remained, if he'd but tried, engaged by his life and not by his disease.
After a time, James just stared into space and wouldn't talk, but he needed "sitters." He could no longer be alone but he refused nursing care except at night. One sunny day I took a chance. It was July, but James was cold. The windows were closed and the odor of urine was heavy in the air.
"Where do you think you'll go if you die?" I finally asked, conceding to pretense by using "if."
"Cross town if I can get a cab," he snapped and closed his eyes to sleep.
My eyes were riveted on the extra pillow lying on a chair. Quickly, I sat on my hands. It had been a very long three years. I wanted to smother him with that pillow. I wanted the whole thing to be over. I wasn't proud of these feelings; instead, I was scared by them ("it's his death, not mine; it's his death, not mine," I chanted rapidly to myself), but his hopelessness was taking its toll. I had to make some space in the hot July air closing in on us: I could no longer breathe.
What hurt most about James's dying was not only the fact that he died but how he died. His loss to me was excruciatingly sad, and it was a tragic loss to all who had known that bright, brilliant, and gallant man. But in his dying he also damaged our love. I couldn't stand that absence of hope. I wasn't so foolish to ask hope of his doctors. I wouldn't have believed them anyway. I never had any hope that his belatedly diagnosed cancer wouldn't eventually defeat him. I knew better. But I wished he had hoped...for more.
For the record, from the moment Henry died of cancer, he was remembered with a vividness that never faltered. After a decade, there still isn't a third or fourth meal that friends don't say, "Oh, Henry would have loved this." He was a great fan of Chinese food, and many people laugh and see him at a Chinese restaurant in heaven. In fact, in his will Henry left $1,000 to his friends, directing us to take ourselves out to a huge Chinese meal, complete with Groucho Marx noses, a favorite accessory of his. We all remember Henry with great love and laughter, and we miss him in a very sweet way.
Nice stories. Different folks, different strokes. But I see much more than a variation in personal styles. I see an anecdotal argument for finally asking what happens to us after we die. Even in these stories drawn only from my personal life, I see persuasive arguments for overcoming cynicism and allowing the possibilities that death is a threshold rather than a door slammed shut and that the universe is a place of more than meets the eye. I see arguments for asking ourselves and encouraging our children to ask, "What's out there? Where do we go next? What happened to Grandpa and what will happen to me?" If we have no curiosity about what might exist after death, we blind ourselves to what many believe to be the next stage of our journey. "As far as we can discern," writes Jung in the chapter in his memoir where he explores his own dreams of life and beyond death, "the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being." We live with shadows, and too often in the dark shadows is death, but we have the opportunity to ask, to wonder, to consider -- and to illuminate our own paths through reality's ever-present mysteries.
Think for a minute, or even longer as I did when first confronted with the following. What would it mean to you to believe as the Fon of the Benin Republic of Africa do that everyone and everything in the whole world belongs to groupings formed by the fact that their members die simultaneously? And that because these group members die at the same time, they all come back to life at the same time? Consider this idea, not as religious dogma, but in a moment of suspended disbelief as you might experience in reading a novel, watching a play, or reflecting on a poem.
Consider the implications of the idea of the Fon. According to them, if I were to die now, a whole fraternity of people and creatures -- birds, foxes, lions, fish, men, women, babies, grandmothers, streams, clouds, insects, flowers, and trees -- according to their own life schedules, would die with me. And because we died together, we would return together. Though we may be strangers, unknown to each other, we form a cohesive group, and that very group affords us the security of belonging.
For the Fon a single idea connects beings and things and people that are, if they're sentient, unaware of each other. It makes a community where before there were only unrelated individuals. True, we've heard a lot about the connectedness of all things in the universe, especially in the past decade or so, but like a beautifully rendered paragraph or verse, full of detail and color and rich description, this idea of the Fon brings specificity to that relatively abstract concept, and in that specificity each of us can imagine a place. This vision gives us the potential to delight in finding that all along we have belonged to some wonderful network of bugs, cats, and people, an unexpected fraternity that died when we died and returned to life when we did.
Something can happen if we visualize that interconnectedness and the detail it involves. Not only can our imagination fill with pictures, but almost without our noticing it -- perhaps without our noticing it at all -- the idea of death can become normalized, simply a part of a cycle shared by the wildly disparate members of our peer group. We could, perhaps, become accustomed to seeing death in a complex stew of reality, and if we did the world could become more precious, more comfortable, larger, more interesting -- even far livelier and promising than the knowable world just this side of James's slammed door.
Working with Joanne showed me the power that the mere exposure to ideas of the afterdeath carries. Joanne was a forty-five-year-old single mother and cancer patient whose disease had been managed successfully for eight years but who then began a sharp decline. She was petrified, and any allusion to her death elicited a storm of hysterical crying. She had not written her will; had not made provisions for her children; and had not discussed with her friends her hopes and desires for her children's welfare, her plans to have her work taken over, or her thoughts about her memorial service. Her crying and sobbing were like a wall between herself and her death -- they kept her death from entering all conversation.
No one dared talk of death with Joanne, and the family finally decided to bring in a consultant: me. I asked Joanne directly, "What do you think will happen to you after you die?" Then I let her cry herself out, and finally she seemed to understand and accept that this was only a conversation.
"What? You mean after the funeral?" she asked. "What are they going to do with me after the funeral?"
"No, I mean something else. In many cultures people believe that very definite things happen after you die. Lots of people in our culture have similar feelings: They know or hope or suspect that certain things will happen to them. Do you have any ideas about this? Vague ideas or specific ones? Things you might have learned from your parents when you were a little girl?"
"Nothing," Joanne said sullenly, turning her face to the wall. "When you go you go, that's all. And you're all alone. No one can help you through it."
"Is it the aloneness that bothers you?" I asked her.
"Of course it's the aloneness," she said with sudden energy. "What could be lonelier than being without your family?" Joanne, I had been told, had always been a busy, gregarious woman, and she had valued personal relationships above all else.
A couple of sessions later, Joanne told me in a musing voice, "You know, I would really like to see my father again. I'd like to see him the way he used to be, not the way I see him in my mind ever since he died." I knew from earlier sessions that her father had died during a violent epileptic seizure, which Joanne, at age ten, had witnessed. This was an image that never left her.
Finally shown a path to try, I responded, "Reunion with loved ones after death is a notion that comes up all over the world. Many people in this country who have experienced near-death experiences report reunions with their deceased loved ones. And cultures all over the world describe meeting ancestors beyond death. They say reunions are possible, Joanne," I said, hoping she would share with me the possibility that perhaps she would see her father again. "Would you like to read about it?" I asked.
No hesitation: "Yes."
Joanne had been a voracious reader all her life, though she'd quit reading when her doctors said they could do no more for her. Now she began to read widely on the subject of reunion. Soon she began to initiate conversations about her own preparations for death, confessing sheepishly to a secret: She was looking forward to it -- well, not to death itself but certainly to seeing her father once more. Soothed by the concept of reunion, she acquainted herself with death, and that familiarity soon allowed her to take care of her unfinished business. She made her will, talked extensively with her friends and children about their lives after her death, and implied, if not promised, that she would see them again.
The Value And Power Of Stories
Extensive literature searches have revealed a distinct scarcity of studies designed to prove that exposure to ideas and images of the afterdeath actually brings benefits to the seeker. More such empirical research would be welcome, and given the changing environment in science, where old prejudices are giving way to a new openness to possibilities, I hope that such work is not far off. In that vein, the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, has offered a substantial reward to anyone who can prove there is not an afterdeath -- an imaginative variation on the more usual, and more cynical, view that dares the proponent to provide proof.
In this book, I employ what is known as the natural history approach to science, an approach analogous to the methods employed by basic scientists who collect specimens as fodder for their eventual theories. In the case of afterdeath research, the specimens are not rocks or animals but human beliefs and experiences. By collecting "samples" of afterdeath beliefs and experiences, we -- like those who employed this method before us -- can lay a basis for further study of this new field of the afterdeath. Throughout this book I will offer samples both of the diverse ways other cultures see the afterdeath experience and experiences of clients in my practice who have grappled in my presence with their expectations of imminent death. I will describe cases as well where principles and anecdotes of the afterdeath have psychological meaning to patients and profound assistance in the healing process in general.
These examples and anecdotes are presented not as scientific proof of the power of the world's wisdom, but rather as illustrations of ways in which images and ideas of the afterdeath can break rigid habits of being and open the doors of possibility. If we approach these perspectives not as scientists but as seekers, trying out first this new light, then that strange idea, the mysteries and puzzles that have remained so stubbornly in the shadows may begin to gain definition. As evidence that this is so, I conclude this chapter with a personal anecdote that, in its quiet way, dramatizes the approach I have described.
In the late 1980s, I traveled with my colleague Edmundo Barbosa to Sulawesi, Indonesia. Edmundo, a colleague who works with cancer patients and is a student of Brazilian rituals, has traveled extensively with me and has taught me a great deal about preparing to encounter disparate ways of thinking. We journeyed to Indonesia to collect afterdeath data.
In Sulawesi, when a child dies it is buried, not in the earth, but in the carved-out trunk of a beautiful tree surrounded by a ring of benches. On a mild day, Edmundo and I sat together below this massive tree and looked up at the trunk with its little carved niches in which the small coffins go. As the tree grows, we were told, the child is taken closer to the heavens and to God.
We sat silently on the bench under the boughs of this magnificent tree, and what came to me was a profound respect. I felt I was witnessing something of such beauty, of such great compassion, that I became very, very quiet. I started to think of children who had died, the pain those deaths had caused, and the severity of those losses. It was lovely for me to learn that children had been buried in the tree in order to be constantly moved toward the sky. I spent a lot of time looking first at the tree and then at the sky, the tree and then the sky.
I thought of the tree not only as the physical bearer of the children but also as their perpetuator. The leaves, the roots, the seasons affecting the tree and its renewal -- all these were imbued with the spirits of the children buried in its trunk. Into my mind came the prayer flags of Tibet -- handmade pieces of colorful cloth inscribed with messages and hung on wires on almost every house. The Tibetans hang these flags around their homes so that the winds will spread the prayers or greetings written on them throughout the world. The tree, I reflected, was doing the same with these children: spreading their spirits into the air around us and who knows where else.
The entire experience reminded me of a poem by Chinese poet Li Po that I looked up later:
The birds have vanished into the sky,
and now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.
When adults die in Sulawesi, whenever their family is able to attain twenty-four water buffalo to make the required sacrifice, effigies called tau-tau are made of the dead person. A tau-tau is a wooden doll about three feet high. Its right hand is extended palm sideways to receive a blessing from above; the left hand is extended palm upward to pass on the blessings to the community. The tau-tau is placed with crowds and crowds of other tau-taus in caves, carved niches, or mountains above and surrounding the community. They look down on and watch over the community at all times, and just above and beside the tau-taus are the actual graves, or holes dug into the mountainside where the bodies of the dead are buried.
To me, the authenticity of the comfort the tau-tau affords is unquestionable. As the children's tree focused our attention on the beauty and dependability of nature, so the effigies of the adult dead brought subtle, complex pleasures of art to the community. Could the devastating emotions of loss and abandonment be softened with a more comforting effect than the artist's effort to render a spirit and a body as it was in life -- familiar, comfortable, and now watching over the community as a bridge between the living and dead?
When I first saw the tau-tau of the Sulawesi, I wished that my friend James had allowed his apartment to be filled to bursting with images of the afterdeath. I own many pieces of skeleton art from Mexico, one of which is of a man sitting in a bathtub, naked. He is a skeleton smoking a cigarette and musing, just as James used to do. Among my collection of beautiful Day of the Dead sculptures from Mexico are some tall women, elegantly dressed as James liked women to be -- proper purses and looking coyly at the viewer, hats jauntily perched, inviting. Except that they are skeletons. Familiar figures, but dead.
Had death become even somewhat normal to James -- had he lived with it through art on a daily basis -- perhaps today his own image might be living in the memories of his friends with a relaxed and accepting smile on his face instead of the expression of deep anxiety with which he faced his last weeks. Simply living with such art and imagery might have opened him to the chance that there was more to the mystery of existence than he could see or taste or feel as he lay on his deathbed in terror.
Copyright © 1997 by Sukie Miller