Recently one of my best friends has been struggling with the idea of her own death. The thought wracks her with overwhelming sadness and pain, and at times it overcomes her. She’ll spend hours in bed, inconsolably crying and shaking. She eventually emerges, but can remain depressed for days.
Why the grief? Emily believes that when she dies, she’ll simply cease to be. Her life, her consciousness, are just a biological accident, and when she dies her energy will dissipate; her thoughts, feelings and memories lost to the wind. I could understand that pain if I subscribed to her beliefs. Of course, I don’t.
You might think this is about religion, but it’s not. I was raised without it, and for most of my life I didn’t believe anything one way or the other about spirituality or the so-called “afterlife”. Only in the past couple of years have my beliefs taken shape, informed partly by the information I choose to tune into and partly from my own “otherwordly” experiences. Perhaps not coincidentally, both of those experiences have surrounded Emily.
The first one was in August 2005. Away from home on business, I dreamt that I had gone to see Emily in Chicago. She and her husband were engaged in a DaVinci Code-like quest to solve some precious puzzle. They found two of the three pieces and just after I arrived, found the third. Suddenly Emily’s aunt, who in the dream I understood to have recently died, swept us all into the sky and we were flying hypersonicly fast and feeling simultaneous screaming emotions of joy and exuberance and elation and speed the likes and intensity of which I’ve never felt. Then Emily’s aunt whispered in my ear: “This is what life is for.” I abruptly woke to jackhammer pounding all around me, immobilized as the pounding subsided. As soon as I got my bearings, I knew I was going to die. I was convinced an axe murderer was just around the corner. I had been shown the meaning of life, and my time had come.
Only a year later did it become clear that this was no mere dream.
I didn’t tell Emily right away. I don’t know why; I just wasn’t compelled to. Three months afterward I finally got her on the phone. I asked whether an aunt of hers had recently died. She said yes, in fact, her mother’s sister died a month ago. I related my experience. To her it was interesting but meaningless. She wasn’t close to that aunt. Not knowing what to make of it myself, I didn’t press it.
My next experience occured just a few days ago. This time I really was visiting Emily in Chicago, where we carried out our annual ritual of going to an Ani Difranco concert together. It was on this trip that I learned of Emily’s fear of death and witnessed first-hand the crippling effect it has on her.
On the plane ride home, tired and hung over, I closed my eyes to rest. Two images popped into my head: a stereotypical green glowing alien head and a grid-like black tunnel. I found it interesting but didn’t pay it much mind.
That night, sleepless in my bed as has become customary, the jackhammer feeling hit me again. I tried to get up only to find I was paralyzed. I was somehow being pulled out of my body, hard. Shocked, I realized that jackhammer feeling was my soul journeying out of my body. The glowing alien being and black tunnel appeared again. “Oh my god”, I thought. “I’m having an alien encounter”. I was thrilled and terrified at the same time. I knew I was supposed to go into the tunnel, but I resisted. I didn’t know where I was going and I definitely didn’t know if I’d be coming back to my body. But the jackhammer feeling intensified, along with my lack of connection to my body — and my fear. I began to REALLY freak out. Then, just as suddenly as it came on, it all subsided. Within a few moments everything was back to normal. Heart pounding, I got raced out of bed, looking for a UFO in the backyard or something else to explain what had just happened.
Had I gone “on a journey” that my consciousness — or the otherworldly being — protected me from remembering? Or was the being there to show me that we are not alone in the universe and that we do have a “soul” that is separate from the body, that lives on beyond this earthly existence? I don’t know. But I do know that it was REAL. And it reinforced my beliefs.
What are those beliefs? If Emily could only hear me, I’d tell her:
Of course our consciousness goes on after we die.
Of course we’re not alone in this world.
Of course life isn’t an accident.
And of course you have no reason to be afraid, because I won’t let you just cease to exist.
If she’d only listen, I’d tell her “Baby, this I believe”.
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