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In my last post we talked about the benefit of coming to grips with death with the realization that learning about our mortality helps to alleviate some or all of the fears we have and therefore helps us in dealing with it and with our own mortality. It can also help to knock us upside the head with the realization that although death may be a mystery, it is an absolute for all of us, and emphasizes the need to get the most out of what we do have right now — today, and this life!!
This post will focus on my own experiences and education related to death, integrating in several stories that provided me with more and more data points to help me form a new understanding of death not based on what someone told me, but the summation of my own research and experiences. No, it is not meant to be all about me, but instead using my own experiences as a guide and inspiration for others to take time to understand death and come to grips with their own mortality.
My first experience was as a young boy. I was approximately 8 years old when our family was returning home from a trip. We were on a highway and slowed down due to an accident. It had just happened since there were no emergency vehicles there yet. I saw a family, like our own, that were all still and lifeless. The image that sticks in my mind was the man who was driving and how his arm dangled out of the window. I could see the time on his watch. There was loads of blood and broken windows. It was a horrific accident. As we drove on, no one in our car spoke until we got home. There was no conversation regarding the accident.
For years this image haunted me in my dreams. I was terrified when I awoke and quickly ducked back under my covers. Death was a very scary thing. This is all I knew then. It was approximately 4 years later when I was walking on a sidewalk to a Yankees baseball game in the Bronx. I was so excited to be going to my first Major League Baseball game. The stadium was in sight and my excitement grew. Everyone ahead of us was walking off of the sidewalk apparently to avoid something. When I arrived, I saw an elderly man, whose head was on the curb and bleeding. He was also lifeless. I stopped to stare but the crowd pushed us forward. What was amazing was that no one had stopped. It was as if a trash can had toppled over. Once again, there was no conversation on this. I was distracted with the game, but once it was over and we returned to our car, I could not get rid of this image. Once again, I was terrified, and once again no conversation on the topic.
Let me stop here for a moment and consider the ramifications of these incidences as a young child. With no opportunity to talk about this to anyone, left me to believe that death was scary and something we remained silent about. Although our family attended church, there was nothing there to soothe or comfort me. A deep fear of death had developed.
I was now 16 and my Mom was in the hospital, in a coma, and I was told that she was near death. She had breast cancer. We camped out in the nearby break room. It was around midnight when a nurse came and asked us all to come into the room where my mother was. I was shaking in my boots, literally. When we walked in, Mom was sitting upright in her bed, had her glasses on and smiling. She spoke to each of us and said to everyone, “I will be 100% better”. I was excited. She would be alright! She said she was tired and we returned to the breakroom. Within a few hours she was dead. Not only was I devastated that my Mom had died, leaving me know with an abusive father, but that my belief that she would be okay, as she said she would be, which had been ripped away.
I had returned to school and no one spoke to me. It was as if I had the plague. Once again I was alone with these experiences of death. I was scared and now angry. “How could there be a god” I thought. If there was one, he (since god was always portrayed as a man with a long white beard in my religious classes along with the religious dogma of heaven and hell), was an angry man and used his power to do as he pleased. I had witnessed the Wrath of God through all my abuse and experiences with death. I found myself angry with my mother. “Why did she lie to me?” Death was as ugly as it was scary.
I had escaped any death around me throughout my twenties, focusing on the usual distractions of life (e.g. college, getting a job, a girlfriend, an apartment, etc.). My sister was in a bad car accident and I returned home from college to see her. While there I noted her difficulty breathing and called the nurse. She said that it was a good thing I was there, because she could have died without this intervention. I had saved my sister from the ravages of death.
I still continued to have nightmares periodically with the same image of the man’s arm and watch. But I had learned that death was something no one wanted to talk about, so I kept these thoughts to myself. My life began to turn around in my early thirties as I dealt with a number of personal issues stemming from my childhood years. My journey of personal growth and self-discovery started to transform into a spiritual search since this was a major void in my soul. It was prompted by a mentor, a vice-president in the company I was working for, who had a prognosis of 6 months to live due to having brain cancer. He asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and he was in a position to ask this. Upon a lot of consternation, eventually I realized that I wanted to travel internationally. This series of questioning along with several other events in my life prompted me to leave my leadership role for a backpack. Looking back, my mentor was my angel, helping to push me out of a nest I did not belong in. Even despite the fact that he was dying, he was there for me, using his own experience with mortality as a chance to save another. He did!
The detail from what developed to be a Modern Day Vision Quest in Search of the Meaning of Life is shared in one of my favorite talks. In essence I found my way to “volun-travel” to some of the remote parts of the world and learn about the local culture through backpacking and volunteering. This led me to places like Russia, Poland, Egypt, South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Europe, along with in my own community at home. The common denominator for most of my volunteering activities related to death. I did not consciously plan it this way, but was drawn to these activities as a means of giving back. This included roles such as an Emergency Medical Technician, Counselor for a children’s oncology camp, and hospice care provider. Here are some of my stories as it relates to my encounters with death.
It was fun volunteering with children who had cancer. It was a chance for me to give something back. However as I would learn, I was really the student and the children became my teachers!
The international oncology camp provided the kids with cancer an outlet to let down their hair (usually because of the absence of any hair due to their treatments), and be themselves with others who could relate to what they were going through. It was gut-wrenching however since throughout the year, we learned of those kids who had died. How could this be? And particularly with children! They were so young and still full of innocence. But it was with three different conversations with these kids that a dent in my fear of death was made. In each case, they approached me knowing and trusting that they could talk to me about anything. What they each shared in common were experiences they had while in the hospital. I was the only one they had told about these experiences for fear that they would be ridiculed.
They had each seen figures while in the hospital and while they were alone at night and in pain. One described a bright light that talked to them, another clearly saw Mother Mary, and the third an angel because of the wings they had. The message from each figure and in their own way, stated that they were loved and that death was nothing to fear. These were three distinct situations over a period of several weeks, and each of the kids did not know each other nor attended the same week. I tried to write these situations off, but could not. These were young kids which made it highly improbable they would make this up, particularly seeing how difficult it was for them to share this.
The following year at the camp I worked with a group of kids from Poland. I befriended the group and promised them that I would make a trip to Poland and visit with them, which I did. Beata was a young teenager and had a real zest for life. Her leg had been removed as a result of the cancer. I stayed with her family upon my trip to Poland which was a real treat to see how simple yet hard life was there. We stayed in touch and wrote to each other as pen pals. She wrote a short story titled, “What Cancer Taught Me” which was an amazing and positive spin on this dreadful disease. She had changed and came to accept her death a couple of years later. She called me shortly before she died, informing me that she would die soon. Instead of me comforting her, she was comforting me and letting me know that she had accepted this reality.
It was on my trip to Poland that Beata’s father drove us to visit Auschwitz, home of the infamous concentration camp. I will never forget how powerful this was to see the evidence and means of this mass killing and death machine. There were still piles of shoes, eyeglasses, hair, and more, that were removed prior to their cremation. I fell to my knees and in tears as I looked at these piles and realized that for each one these represented a man, woman or child. I was silent during the tour and in particular as I stood within inches of where the bodies were burned. It was one thing to hear of these stories, but fully another to stand right there where it happened. Inside my mind was the quandary that how could there be a god with all this pain, suffering and meaningless death, yet something within me refused to accept this. My experience with the kids in the oncology camp raised my interest along with a thirst to learn more.
I left Poland with my eyes torn open and heart hurting for these dear kids. However it was Beata’s call and comfort with death that really impacted me. How cold she be okay with dying. It brought back my haunting memories of my Mom on the night she had died. Could it be what she was experiencing that night? Was “being 100% better” meant to mean her death?
Pain, suffering and death were paramount in my trips to Africa. I volunteered in what were called “townships” where thousands of South African Blacks lived in tin shacks and devastating conditions. It was here that I met one of the most amazing men. The man had one leg and told me the story about how a few weeks ago, gangs attacked their area, and shot everything in sight. It was an outlet for the terrible and shit conditions that existed there. It was then that he shared the account of losing his wife and daughter while in tears. But there he was on his knees, because of the loss of one leg, and beginning to put back the pieces of his home. He said he would go on since this is what his family would want along with the fact that he would see them again. I asked for permission to talk about his views towards death and he was okay with that. He said that he felt their presence each day which would give him the strength to go on. I inquired about this presence which he would simply explain that it was a feeling just as he felt with my presence. Despite a temptation to write this off, the resilience of this man and faith he had was amazing. I wanted that for myself.
Note: part of my spiritual journey was involving myself with most every religion I could find. Certainly faith and answers had to come from religion for there was no other source I thought. But this search left me empty as canned answers were supposed to give me what I needed. Often I was told to stop asking questions and start believing. I just could not accept this, so my search went on.
There was a stir within me about death leaving me a desire to learn more. As I returned home from my trips I would volunteer on ambulance where I experienced pain, suffering and death on a regular basis. I would see death first hand at major accidents, in the back of the ambulance, and in the emergency room. It was on my first call as an EMT that I arrived at a home where a thirty-three year old man was not breathing. I so much wanted to revive him for my own ego to find a way to beat death, but it was not to be. I was confronting death a lot, but was still leery of death and my focus became thinking more about what happens after death than that of death itself.
My experience in hospice care was a real game changer. The nurses that trained us strongly suggested that we keep an open mind since we would most likely experience some unexplainable events. They were right, we did. My role was often to sit next to the person dying and if conscious to let them talk about their thoughts, or to hold their hand and wet their lips if unconscious. There were so many profound learnings from this. Not one person ever talked about work. There was no time for superficial talk, they were dying. The discussions instead focused on their loved ones, their highlights in life and regrets. Most realized, with only a rear view mirror to their life in hand now and no more runway ahead, that the things they felt were important when living life, were of very little significance now. Money, material possessions, job titles, all meant nothing, and instead it was the regrets about not spending more time with their loved ones and enjoying life that pestered them.
There were the weird and unexplained events that happened on a regular basis. One example of this was a person on their death bed, talking to me about their visit with their aunt so-and-so and that they really enjoyed seeing her and their conversation. When their family came in I debriefed them of her status along with her visit with her aunt. Their faces turned pale. One turned to me and said that her aunt had died last year. WTF! Once again, this was not an isolated case. This time however there were the other volunteers to talk to about these events. I was intrigued with how this had changed several of their perceptions and beliefs about death. The stir within me was coming to a boil. There was new evidence that there was something more to death.
The number of experiences around death was having an impact on me. The examples noted above were just a few of the highlights from these encounters. I was still unsure what this all meant, but now had an open mind. It would be a few months later that a situation would significantly change my views. This will be the topic of my next post.
My hope in sharing these stories is to cause a stir within each of you with an interest to learn more about death. My own conclusions are just that, my own. It is not an attempt to suggest to you what death is really all about, but just that opening myself to my greatest fear, death, along with a willingness to get close to it and learn, is what helped me form my conclusions.
Michael is an award winning author, speaker, facilitator and coach on the topics of Personal Growth, Self-Discovery and Enlightenment. Visit my website for more information (growhumanpotential.com).