We are in the midst of a rabbi/reader dialogue on what we think dying is like. Thank you for your spiritually sensitive thoughts about the mystery of human finitude that awaits us all and frames our faith and our 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 conscience, 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," this came in from J, Ph.D.:
Dying is like birth. When the fetus thinks that its existence is over-- fluid gone -- squeezed to death -- 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 intra-uterine life. The fetus never lost its life.
-- From B in Wallingford, Conn.:
My husband of 41 years died of cancer in August of 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 was 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 of some evidence for life after death are not limited to religious people. Such experiences seem to occur randomly among theists, atheists and all those in between.
-- From S in Kelleys Island, Ohio:
I encountered a near-death experience as a young man. I was hospitalized for Guillain-Barre Syndrome and was completely paralyzed and breathing via a tracheotomy. According to the attending physician, my monitors flat-lined for approximately 40 seconds. Before any corrective medical action took place, my body had a quick, unexplained spasm, and then my monitors returned to normal. So, from my humble perspective, this is what I believe: Prior to 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 and then feeling weaker and weaker. I remember a flash of extremely bright and pure white light and 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 at all. I might fear my state of death, but not the final outcome. Just my humble, but factual experience.
-- MG: NDEs are very important and controversial elements in the conversations about life after death. Strangely, many NDEs share common elements such 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 their time yet. The appeal of NDEs is that they appear to be hard evidence of the existence of a soul and of the life of the soul after the death of the body. I am not sure the evidence is so hard. There are other explanations for the tunnel of light like low oxygen levels in the brain. They 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.
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including "Religion for Dummies," co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)(c) 2019 THE GOD SQUAD DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.