We are in the midst of a rabbi and reader dialogue about dying. Thank you for your spiritually sensitive thoughts about the mystery of human finitude that awaits us all and frames our faith and futures.
From G: I want to share the belief of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe about death. They believe death is "moving on to the next camp." They recognize that life has changed but not ended.
When my mother died two years ago, she died at night in her sleep (as did my grandfather, her father), but I was able to spend an afternoon with her holding her hand. She was not conscious, but I think it may have eased her transition toward death.
Marc Gellman: I have been told that more people die from 2 to 4 in the morning than any other time. This may be because their love for family and friends holds them back until they are alone and can let go in the silence of the night. And along the lines of "moving to the next camp" ...
From J, Ph.D.: Dying is like birth. When the fetus thinks that its existence is over — fluid gone, squeezed — it pops into another sphere of existence of which it had no prior knowledge. This new existence is infinitely more complex and beautiful than the intrauterine life. The fetus never lost its life.
From B in Wallingford, Connecticut: My husband of 41 years died of cancer in August 1992. He had been an agnostic for all of his life, though he married me — a Christian. We managed quite well the differences in our beliefs and it never caused a problem in our marriage, and we were exceedingly happy together. As he lay dying, I prayed mightily that the Lord would have mercy on his soul as he was an exceptionally good husband, father and person. I stood by his bedside, holding his hand, through all of those days. Just as he was to breathe his last, he opened his eyes and looked over my shoulder, not at me, and an expression of complete surprise registered on his face. I have always believed that he was seeing the Lord — who until then he did not believe existed. I have believed to this day that my prayers for him were answered.
MG: The interesting insight from B's response is that end-of-life experiences offering evidence of life after death are not limited to religious people. Such experiences seem to occur randomly among theists, atheists and those in between.
From S in Kelleys Island, Ohio: I encountered a near-death experience as a young man. I was hospitalized for Guillain-Barré syndrome and was completely paralyzed and breathing via a tracheotomy. According to the attending physician, my monitors flatlined for about 40 seconds. Before any corrective medical action took place, my body had a quick, unexplained spasm, then my monitors returned to normal. So, from my humble perspective, this is what I believe: Before the death process, an individual is alive and in that current state, anything imaginable may be taking place — watching a car about to hit you, looking down the barrel of a gun, burning alive, drowning, being in a hospice setting, etc. The "state of dying" does not matter. In my case, I remember being in intensive care, somewhat mentally aware then feeling weaker and weaker. I remember a flash of extremely bright and pure white light, then an "overhead" vision of me in my last known state: lying on the gurney with monitors attached. Then nothing more until I regained consciousness and saw the attending physician looking into my eyes. Since then, I do not fear death. I might fear my state of death, but not the final outcome. Just my humble, but factual experience.
MG: Near-death experiences are important and controversial elements in conversations about life after death. Strangely, many of them share such elements as out-of-body experiences and seeing a tunnel of light. Often, they are accompanied by experiences of loved ones appearing and telling the person that it is not yet their time. Near-death experiences are appealing because they appear to be hard evidence of the existence of a soul and the life of the soul after the body's death. I am not sure the evidence is so hard. There are other explanations for the tunnel of light, such as low oxygen levels in the brain. Near-death experiences also make an act of faith (belief in the soul and life after death) into an act of science. This distorts both faith and science. Science and faith are separate experiences and the truths discovered by each are separate but equal.