Can we talk about life after death?

  • This post is a re-run of previous discussions about life and death and was also carried by the Daily Dispatch just before Easter 2019.
Another dawn
Another dawn

Since it’s Good Friday – can we have a conversation about life after death?

This is not essentially an article about the significance for Christians of Good Friday and Easter. It’s a challenge to all of us, religious or not, to have meaningful reflections, if not conversations, about what an impending death might mean for those left behind.

Of course, for many people of Christian faith, Good Friday represents the death on a cross of Jesus Christ, soon to be followed by Easter Sunday when, Christians believe, Christ was resurrected from death.

So, it may be especially apt for believers at this time to consider the very basis of their faith and, in that context, anticipate their own death and presumed elevation to a heavenly realm from death on earth.

One of Christ’s objectives was to consider his death – throughout the time that he was preaching, healing, loving, he was also talking about death, directly and metaphorically.

He never spared his loved ones – relatives and disciples – the challenge of being aware of what his death would mean.

For believers who had followed him, there would be positive and negative implications of his death – for some, their own death would be almost immediate because of their association with the one they regarded as the Messiah.

I never had any sense of anticipation about death. I never wanted to think about death, let alone discuss the prospects of my death. Until I was dying.

Research has shown that, compared to the 1960s when doctors were loathe to disclose to a patient that their illness was terminal, nowadays up to 90% of doctors will tell a patient their terminal status.

But in August 2016, doctors were telling me that I was dying; after a few years of struggle, my weak heart was now in end stage failure and I was admitted semi-permanently to hospital.

There was the slightest possibility that I could receive a heart transplant. But I needed to go through a rigorous work-up in Cape Town and even if I was a suitable candidate for a transplant, there was no guarantee I would receive a donor heart in time.

How much time did I have – weeks, months, years? Of course, it’s not a question any doctor can easily answer.

As things turned out, I waited less than two months for a donor heart to become available and for my life to be re-born, literally and in other ways.

I remain grateful for the opportunity to extend my own life beyond the timeframe of “end stage heart failure”.

Of course, it’s true that we’re all dying, even while we’re living. From the moment we are born, we’re moving inexorably to the point of death.

But very few of us go around with a mindset that we have very little time left to live.

And society mostly regards an incessant preoccupation with death as morbid, unnatural even, given the importance we attach to life right now.

In those absolutely perplexing moments of appreciating that we are close to death, most of us want to run away, rather than consider the far-reaching implications of this information. Relatives and friends can be most unhelpful at times, pussyfooting around the imminence of death, rather than entering into honest discussion with the dying person.

Of course, these responses are all in keeping with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s exposition of how one comes to terms with death – one’s own and the death of others. It takes time and one must be kind to oneself.

I cannot tell you that coming to terms with my own death was an easy, matter-of-fact process although when I look back now, it seems almost instantaneous. But once I had reached peace with death, I realised very quickly that death may not be my biggest difficulty – instead, there was an urgent need to get my affairs in order, a long list of chores which needed doing.

My loved ones say that this response is really no different to my state of mind at the last moment that I’m about to get into the car for a long road trip to a holiday destination: I will find 101 things I need to do before I can start the engine.

But it is important to recognise that doing administrative tasks, ensuring that whoever is left behind after one has died is not saddled with messy and complicated “stuff”, is fundamentally a good thing.

The Swedes, apparently, have a special word for this process “dostadning” which brings together the words for death, “dod” and cleaning, “städning”.

My will was updated and in place. It included firm decisions about a living will.

My spouse had – still has – a general power of attorney to act for me.

There was not much that needs distributing.

Anything of sentimental value had long since found a new home.

Key account numbers and passwords – including digital ones – were set in a safe place. Increasingly, in a digital age, it’s important to ensure that essential access is available to those who will require this after one has passed on.

A big part of dealing with death is telling people that one is dying.

Telling them from an emotional perspective but also because there may be practical things which they rely on you to take care of.

It’s the weirdest thing, sending someone a message, ‘hello, I’m sorry I can’t make the meeting, I’m in hospital, dying’, telling a boss ‘I won’t be returning to work, unless I get a heart transplant’ or mailing an academic supervisor to withdraw from the programme.

There’s really no point in taking further the discussion about a particularly obscure, even obtuse philosophical theory when one is dying.

In the midst of the madness of sorting out my life in order to die, I also considered how I wanted to be remembered at a funeral or memorial service – a function of having attended too many memorial services which were badly orchestrated to the point of being painful.

I wanted to avoid that, so drew up a programme of words and music which reflected how I want to be commemorated.

Thankfully, there has not yet been a need for the programme, although I occasionally take it out and make sure it’s still the way I would like to be remembered.

And, if truth be told, I never got to the end of the list of things I needed to do before death happened.

I don’t think I will reach that point by the time I die.

I don’t think we ever do.

Can we talk about life after death?

One thought on “Can we talk about life after death?

  • 1st April 2020 at 4:31 pm

    Hey Ray, did you also find that making peace with death and dying was infinitely liberating? I found this to be true for me, like you I had end stage heart failure although I waited about 4 and a half years for my transplant. Up until the final days in hospital I was angry, disillusioned and downright pissed at the hand I’d been dealt, but a couple of months before I received a new heart and lease on life, I became completely at peace within myself and accepted that my life was nearly over and remember praying to God, asking only for the strength to carry my cross the last part of my short journey here on earth, as well as dignity when I closed my eyes for the final time. It’s difficult trying to explain to someone what end stage heart failure is, the difficulty in breathing, the drowning from over loaded lungs when sleeping and the thought that death itself would be a welcomed release from all the anxiety! I’m incredibly grateful to be alive with a new heart today and breathing without even thinking about it, death can wait a while longer, but I’ll not fear it again. Your Friend. Anthony Breakey

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