Essay #13: Making Peace with Death

I admit that I found it easier in my younger years to make peace with death because the reality of death seemed so far removed.  Now that I’m of an age when death reminds me often of its certainty, my attitude is decidedly less cavalier.  Anyone who’s honest will feel pause at the certainty of their own death, but in addition to that pause I also feel excited about the most important journey any of us will experience.  And what makes this journey even more intriguing is the fact that no one—and I do mean no one—actually knows for sure what will happen.

It may be that after death some expression of our essence continues, perhaps like a butterfly leaving the old chrysalis behind.  It also may be that death is the end of our being…period, lights out.  Of course, virtually all spiritual teachings proclaim that we have a spiritual essence that survives death, and I like to believe this as much as the next person.  But the only way to know for sure is to die, and that makes death the most mysterious and sacred experience of life.

At the age of 27, I had a near-death experience that was real enough and powerful enough to shape my life more than any other experience.  This is largely why I’m able to believe that we do indeed have a deeper essence that survives death.  I will briefly share this near-death experience with the hope that it might help you make peace with death, as it has me.

I had just finished a year of teaching kindergarten at a private school in southern Arizona, and was living alone out in the middle of the desert without a phone.  My plan was to travel for the entire summer, so no one was expecting me to be around.  However, the day after school ended I woke up sick and kept feeling worse day after day.  In these younger years I could be exceptionally stubborn—some would say that’s still true—and I didn’t believe in going to doctors then, so I just kept resting and waiting to feel better.  I would later learn that I had a severe case of valley fever, an illness that can be fatal if not treated.

After almost two weeks, when I began feeling dangerously ill and knew that I needed to do something, I decided to make a medicinal tea out of desert marigold that I had collected and cured earlier in the spring.  In my weakened condition I failed to notice that this herb had not cured properly and was completely covered with mold.  As soon as I drank the tea, my entire body went into panic mode.  I heard a roaring sound like a train inside my head as my body convulsed, and I passed out on my bed.

My last thought was wondering if I was dying.  But then I woke up to a heightened state of awareness without my physical body.  I realized that I must have died, and it felt unbelievably good.  With me was another being who guided me through the process of reviewing everything that had happened in my life, from very early childhood right up to that present moment.  It seemed that my life memories formed a circle around me, like being inside a panorama.  I relived my entire life, even long forgotten and seemingly insignificant memories.

But now, with help from my guide, I had a sense of the larger picture that enabled me to see how my actions affected others and why certain things happened to me.  There was no sadness or regret; rather, everything seemed absolutely perfect, just the way it all needed to be.  I understood that things happen for reasons we seldom know at the time, and that our choices in even little everyday situations may be important.  I also understood that it was not my time to die now because I had much yet to learn and experience.  Actually, what the guide said to me was, “You haven’t really learned anything yet.”  Then I lost consciousness again.

I awakened with a jolt and with the knowing that I was healed.  I was still quite weak, but my whole body told me I was no longer ill.  I looked at the clock and found that it was 9:30 at night.  I figured I had been unconscious for about six hours because I drank the tea in mid-afternoon.  Later I would learn that it was actually the night of the next day; I had been unconscious for some 30 hours.  I don’t know if this was what’s called a spiritual healing or if I may have synchronistically treated myself because the mold in my desert marigold tea could have been the perfect antibiotic for valley fever.  Either way seems equally meaningful to me.

Every day of my life since then has been different.  Now, in addition to my ever-present array of flaws, I live with a deeper appreciation of the gift of human life, I am more aware of and more thankful for the moments of each day, I view others including nonhuman beings with more respect and awe, I am more conscientious about my interactions with others, I find more humor in life, and along with the honest dose of pause that began this essay, I am looking forward to my own death.

Those neuroscientists who dismiss near-death experiences as “fabrications of a dying brain trying to trick us so that our death seems less traumatic” have not gone through the experience themselves and witnessed its life-changing power.  I believe that death will be one of the best moments of my life because I have glimpsed the other side, and it felt far better than physical existence.  I also find it comforting that the guide said to me with satirical relish, “You haven’t really learned anything yet,” because it means there’s humor on the other side.  And any place with humor is a pretty good place to be.

© 2015 Gary Stogsdill