Death in the modern world has been called the scandal of reason,[i] because reason is unable to overcome the paradox of death. In its objection to faith, reason refuses to face this paradox by trying to understand death. By rejecting the afterlife as unreasonable, death is made a journey into the unknown. Most of us go to great lengths to leave home for even a week of travel, yet our modern society does nothing to prepare us for the great journey into death.
Pope John II has explained that we are being deprived of the truth of existence, and therefore, we will suffer great loss: “The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions that underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby.”
Through its inability to understand and thus deal with death, the modern mindset has made death meaningless. In my native country, I read an article about death by a highly recognized doctor who is a member of The Ethical Council of Denmark. He used the Greek philosopher, Epicurus, to make his point. “Death is not to be feared—when it is there, I am not—and when I am there, it is not.”
Epicurus was a strict materialist who said that “pleasure is happiness,” and even though his thinking is more than two thousand years old, his view fits with today’s modern rationalistic worldview. With reason’s failure to overcome the paradox of death, we are left with modern technology’s sometimes extreme ways of overcoming the causes of death. Not wanting to touch on the subject of death, all resources are focused on overcoming the causes of death. It seems that since reason is unable to understand death, we focus our efforts on trying to defeat that which we fear.
These have been my personal observations from working as a volunteer visiting dying cancer patients. Our modern world does everything possible to defend its people while alive, but when death is inevitable, people are left to fight this last battle alone. Having separated death from life, life is missing its other half. Without an understanding of the meaning of death, we cannot understand the meaning of life.
Death is difficult and therefore grief and loss is hard to accept. Leaving loved ones behind, or bearing the loss of loved ones, is the heaviest part of life. Going through a painful death, or being the witness to the pain of a loved one dying, is almost unbearable. When my father died I was in shock, feeling as if I had been hit by a train. The pain was so heavy to bear that it choked me and scared me at first.
However, what helped me out of this wreckage when my father suddenly died the day before my birthday was to accept the sorrow and get in touch with the pain through embracing it.
I took a full week off preparing the funeral and during this time I went through all of my father’s things with all the memories connected to them. For a full week I cried, culminating in the speech that I gave at the funeral. This speech contained the most difficult words I have ever spoken. But just after the funeral I felt something lift and the next day I began to feel the pain leave my heart. It was as if during that whole week I was able to take it all in and let it all out.
In Perfect Endings, Robert Sachs says: “No death is good. No death is bad. Death just is.” Death is a natural part of life, and Sachs explains that whatever form death takes, it is still the perfect conclusion to the life that we have lived. No matter the kind of death we experience, it is still something we must come to terms with through acceptance.
After decades of experience working in hospices Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed one of the most insightful ways to understand grief and loss. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief, also called the Kübler-Ross model, contains five stages of grief: 1. Denial, 2. Anger, 3. Bargaining, 4. Depression and last 5. Acceptance.
These stages do not necessarily follow the numbered order and nor does everyone go through each stage as it is normal for one person to go back and forth between two stages, e.g. stage one and two or stage three and four.
The ultimate and final stage is acceptance because this is where the grief has been fully embraced, however, this has to be a natural process that one should not force or put in a specific time frame. Overcoming grief takes time and it is important to take this time because death is important.
For me this process was only a week because I took the time and embraced my sorrow for a full week. It was hard to face the pain head on but afterwards after the funeral and having cried through a 30 minute speech, I truly felt a release of my pain.
After having accepted the death of my father, I found that the only thing I regretted was the things that I did not have time to say before he died—the things left unsaid, like “I love you.” Now, this chance was lost, and all of a sudden, I wanted to say this more than anything in the world.
Death is an absolute, and therefore, it makes life extremely important. What is said and done before has profound meaning, and it is almost as if death sometimes can teach us the meaning of life. What we have done with our lives becomes the teaching tool in the school of life. The fact that many people who have near death experiences go through a life-review on the other side, strongly suggests that life lessons are a very important part of dying.
Peter Fenwick tells us that, “The life review seems to give an absolution, something which may be psychologically very necessary at the end of a life.” The research of near death experiences show that about 15 percent have distressing experiences either through an unpleasant life-review and by not surrendering to the experience.
While some will invoke fear of hell based on this the research clearly suggests that these unpleasant experiences are caused by our own choice of separation from ourselves and that the ‘gate of hell’ is locked from within: love is always there. Also there is no anger or punishment involved and the whole point is about learning from the school of life.
In the same way for the dying person, learning on this side of the dying process is equally important. Sachs explains that to have a perfect ending to life can be summed up in one phrase: Pay Attention.
“Pay attention not only to the present but also by reflecting on the days, weeks, months, and perhaps years that have brought you to this moment…You are learning constantly. Life’s school is never out until the final bell…For no matter what we conceive of happening afterward—heaven, hell, another life—we continue to work through a labyrinth that is deep, often incomprehensible, yet workable and in keeping with our original design.”
Sachs’ final advice is: “Just relax. Pay attention. Suspend judgment. Opportunity abounds. Remember: Nothing is ever lost.” For me, after having gone through the pain, I realized that my father was not really gone. The love we shared—the energy of this love—was always there with me. Whenever I would connect to this energy—my father would be there—both in my dreams and in my thoughts. In this way, I learned that love is never lost and my connection to my father always there.
The near-death experience also testifies that nothing is ever lost. The final bell is but the doorbell of an unimaginable magnificent bright state of being on the other side. In my view, the research into the near-death experience is the best and most creditable good news of what is on the other side of this door.
The news is so good that it should bring about a positive perspective with both the dying person and the loved ones. While about 15% have distressing experiences there is evidence to suggest that the longer people stay on the other side the more positive the experience gets, and even people who have unpleasant experiences will say that the experience on a whole was pleasant. Also by far the majority of people report having a very pleasant experience of peace, joy and love, which is powerful beyond description and beyond human comprehension.
One near-death account tells us that there is no reason for us or the person dying to fear death. Death is the beginning of a wonderful experience as we turn the page: “At 11.30 p.m. he stirred and said he had died. I asked him what it was like; he relied, ‘Ecstasy’…’If anyone asks if there is a God I shall say yes, I have seen him’.”[ix] Another person reveals that, “My experience of death was wonderful. I was floating high up, no pain, great joy, and no fear…I was overwhelmed with joy.”
On the other side there is no pain anymore, even if the dying process is painful itself, we are liberated from this pain. One account explains: “The pain was replaced by this wonderful feeling, such a contrast to the pain and suffering…I would like to encourage people to be unafraid of death.” The light on the other side is so unbelievably wonderful that all pain experienced in this world completely disappears.
As a loved one witnessing the painful death of a person, I believe these testimonies can offer great comfort by understanding that the light on the other side is all good—all love. What was pain will be no more, and as the dying person, the light gives great hope and meaning to death. Knowing that this is where we go when we die can make us relax and concentrate on leaving this world in the best manner.
One account testifies that, “All my will was concentrated on ‘going’. I never once thought of my husband or my children, who were quite young then. It all seemed terribly personal, nothing to do with anyone else.” The dying process is extremely personal on the other side, and knowing this can make us let go easier.
In 90 Minutes in Heaven, Don Piper explains that,
“It was perfect, and I knew I had no needs and never would again. I didn’t even think of earth or those left behind…My feelings have been that once we’re actually in God’s presence, we will never return to earth again, because it will be empty and meaningless by comparison.”
Here “empty and meaningless” may be pretty strong words for those of us left behind, but Piper really drives home to point that once our loved one cross over into the peace, joy and love on the other side there is no need to feel sad on their behalf.
Of course there are no guarantees that our loved one had a pleasurable experience like this as some people do have distressing experiences on the other side. However, to turn our perspective around these distressing or even hell-like experiences have been called a “blessing in disguise.”
To see these painful experiences as positive is the same as embracing the night because this is the way God can reach our soul. When hell is the separation from God then our reunion with God cannot be seen as negative but must be positive because the pain of hell wakes us up and brings us back to God.
This we can learn from the near death experience that the point of painful experiences is not to punish us but to make us learn and grow. Ultimately if our loved one is in need of learning something important, learning this must be seen as positive even though it may hurt.
The embrace of death is the embrace of pain but in the pain we can find meaning and a deeper connection to God and truth. As such, death is not the death of love but the death of illusion and madness where our true being returns to God, our source of pure peace, joy and love.