I ask this question of every person who steps through the door because they have come to talk about death—the most universal of all human experiences yet the most difficult to discuss.
In modern culture, we have an uneasy relationship with death. Our language is populated with phrases such as “fear of death and dying.” Promoters of fitness regimens, grooming and beauty tricks, and cosmetic procedures tout their ability to help us “turn back the clock,” the implicit message being that we can hold off life’s inevitable end. Modern medical science is even more explicit: medicine frequently makes our best efforts to resist death the main reason for having hope. Aggressive medical procedures that prolong human life are often seen as a testament to our love for another person—we talk about “miracle cures” and “one-in-a-million chances.” Many of us, including a significant number in the medical profession, feel guilt at the thought of someone dying. Our most common condolence phrase when someone has died is “I’m sorry for your loss.”
And make no mistake, it is a profound loss. Leaving life, leaving loved ones and friends, is both sad and scary. No matter how many of us believe in a benevolent afterlife—and survey after survey suggests that the vast majority of us, about 80 percent, do—it is completely understandable to be highly apprehensive. Even worse, it is death that chooses us, frequently without warning. And for the last couple of years, death has been everywhere. The devastating losses from the Covid-19 pandemic have suddenly visited grief upon many of us, including those who had previously thought that they had ample time remaining to spend with those whom they love.
But as much as we may struggle with death, many of us struggle even more with grief. For years, as a culture, it has been routine for many of us, including medical professionals, to place a clock on grief. After a set amount of time has passed, we encourage the bereaved to “move on” with their lives, or, somewhat less politely, we suggest that the moment has come for them simply “to get over it.”
For the people who come to me, those are deeply unsatisfying answers. And they are to me as well. I would like to humbly suggest that the time has come to rethink our approach to death. To do that, I’m going to ask you to suspend everything you know or think you know about the end of life.
For more than twenty years, I’ve been talking to people about death and the end of life, from the loss of newborn babies to young adults in their prime to elderly parents. There have been natural deaths and traumatic deaths—accidents, overdoses, suicides—deaths from disease, deaths from old age. Yet all of these conversations have had one theme in common: a connection felt by the living person to the deceased at or around the moment of death. These are all healthy, vital people who continue to live active lives. But for a moment, they were linked to another human being during a time of ultimate passage.
I started identifying these moments as “shared crossings,” and what they tell us is that none of us is leaving this earth alone. Each of us can and will be guided on our journey. How can I be certain of that? Because more and more, those who remain among the living have seen it, have felt it, and a few have even joined their loved ones for part of their journey to the afterlife.
Click here to read more about At Heaven’s Door by William J. Peters.