How We Learn About Death – Part 1
Embracing Death: A New Look at Grief, Gratitude and God
by Terri Daniel
The way we perceive death is a choice.
When my 10 year-old son Danny was diagnosed with a degenerative illness that would end his life sometime within the next 10 years, we began a sacred, transcendent journey that led us through disability, death and beyond. A large piece of this process involved my helping him to understand life and death in a way that 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, so 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. Danny’s 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 2007 book, A Swan in Heaven, “At night I 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 the spirit realms 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 life after death:
- Judgment – We’ll go to a good place or a bad place depending on our behavior.
- Separation – We’ll be away from loved ones, where we can’t be contacted.
- Permanence- We’re gone forever, and all life experience stops.
An innate fear of death is at the root of all neurosis. The ego’s terror of extinction is the driving force behind extreme behaviors that are designed to establish dominance and control, such as violence, war, abuse, corruption and bigotry. This is not only true for individuals; it’s true for families, governments, religions, corporations and nations. 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 individual identity.”
That’s the voice of the human ego talking. It’s the personality 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 pull away but are always magnetically drawn back to their source. Our souls have individual paths, histories and intentions that are acted out when we break off from the source into separate bodies during our incarnations. Our bodies are the “experiential” aspects of that source, but we are never actually separate, and always return to Source via dreams, visions, meditation or death. Because we live in a multi-dimensional reality, we don’t disappear after death, but continue to resonate on a higher frequency. Embracing this view can help us release fear-based notions of punishment rather than correction, judgment rather than 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 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 a branch office in a new city, doing the same work in a different location. 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, and his life is far from over. 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.