I haven’t faced death in the eye, but I’ve learned from others who have made the journey from this world to …. elsewhere.
It hasn’t always been love and light. When I was 25, a young minister’s wife, I would go visit Mrs. Cook, in her 90s, at a luxury nursing home. We were both members of a large Christian congregation in the Bible Belt. For long decades, Mrs. Cook had wielded a lot of authority in the church. Women weren’t allowed to speak in the church, but the Elders often sought her opinion in private. I couldn’t tell if they thought she was wise, or if they feared displeasing her because she was wealthy and the church budget depended on her donations.
Mrs. Cook spoke her mind, and this was refreshing to me. I tended to be too mousy. I admired her spunk. But I didn’t understand her habit of cutting off people who disagreed with her. Out of four adult children, only one of them ever came to visit her. I felt sad about this. During my visits with her, she spoke bitterly of her children and others who had disappointed her. “They won’t get a penny when I die!”
One day when I went to visit Mrs. Cook, she was trembling and sobbing in her room. Her usual “put together” appearance was all washed out. “I had a horrible nightmare. I died and it was Judgement Day. Christ was separating the sheep from the goats, and he didn’t recognize me as one of his sheep. He thought I was a goat. He wouldn’t let me into Heaven.” I tried to comfort Mrs. Cook, but her spirit was in agony. I was young, and her distress confused me.
How could someone, who had lived her whole life as a dedicated Christian, arrive at the end and be so terrified? I wanted to tell Mrs. Cook to forgive her children. They were in their sixties and seventies now! Couldn’t she call them and say, “Can we start over? Will you give me a second chance?” She had lived a long life. She had gone to church three times a week. By all accounts she was an upstanding Christian. But had she missed the lesson of forgiveness? We people do horrible things to each other, there is no point denying it. But how to die in peace?
I promised myself I wouldn’t get to my 90s, knocking on death’s door, and have no mercy in my heart for family members and those I traveled with in this life.
In 2016, I interviewed Betty J. Eadie for The Power of Love book. She wrote Embraced by the Light, which is one of the most comprehensive near-death experiences (NDEs) on written record. In her experience, she was embraced by Jesus Christ— “There’s nothing on Earth that can compare with that unconditional love.” She said she felt like a “sinner” because she had not been very religious or moral. He said, “Everyone makes mistakes. This is so you can learn.” Betty was shown many things in this experience. “I saw the ripple effect of everything I’d ever done, both positive and negative. I saw that the smallest of actions – a kind word, a smile – has a great effect, far beyond what you can imagine.”
This week at work, I was aware of the ripple effect. I’m a college professor and spoke sternly to a student in the Meditation class, bringing her to tears. The whole scene was unpleasant, and I wasn’t able to sort it out until a few hours later. How embarrassing! To be aggravated, of all places, in the Meditation class! I had hurt the student’s feelings and injected negativity into the class atmosphere.
I thought of my death—how I would cringe at seeing the ripple effect of my anger! I immediately reached out to the student and apologized. At the next session, I apologized to the class. I led us in a ritual to work through group hurts. We watered the flowers of mindfulness and forgiveness. I hope and pray that when I die, I see a ripple effect of forgiveness from this moment and not a ripple effect of anger.
As far as I know, I’m not close to death’s door. Still, “every day is judgment day” – this is what my teacher, Dr. David R. Hawkins, said. Each moment gives me the chance to prepare for death by living well. What I’ve learned is that the simple interactions of ordinary life matter most. Caring for a stray animal. Listening to a friend. Letting someone go in front of me in traffic or in the grocery line. Forgiving a family member. Encouraging and loving a child.
“Life is really very simple. But – it’s difficult to realize that.” This is one of the last things my teacher said before he passed. A lesson for the living, spoken by the dying.
Dying in peace doesn’t require that we live perfectly but that we’re willing to transform our mistakes into a means of grace.
Fran Grace, Ph.D., is founder of Inner Pathway, a 501(c)3 organization to inspire and educate on the inner qualities of love, joy, compassion, forgiveness, beauty, and humor. She is the author of The Power of Love.