It seems an odd thing to me that so many people who otherwise speak openly about their spiritual path are silent when the subject turns to life after death, as if the elephant in everyone's living room weren't quite an acceptable topic of social conversation.
These days in my own small way I am trying to speak less shyly about the afterlife … because it introduced itself to me quite boldly and unexpectedly four years ago.
In November 2006 my sisters and I faced a challenging scenario. Our father, at the age of 87, died peacefully in his sleep, leaving his bed-ridden widow alone and isolated in her California retirement cottage. Angelika had few friends and no other family, and as my sisters and I flew from Boston to California, grief over our father's sudden passing was mingled with anxiety: How would we oversee our stepmother's care from such a distance? And, more importantly, how could we help and share with this woman whose personality we had struggled with for 40 years? Each of us had her own special story of bruised feelings. … No warmth was lost between us. Our father, whose diplomatic skills had sharpened over 40 years, would no longer be present to soften the edges of our misunderstandings.
I had carried on a bicoastal spiritual discussion with my father for many years: He shared with me the Course in Miracles, and I sent him the writing of Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh. He had encouraged the inspiring messages, which I'd often recorded out of periods of contemplative meditation. We had discussed the afterlife and he had comforted me with his assurance of it, but as I dozed off on the trans-Atlantic flight the day after his death, the last thing I expected was to hear my father's voice in my head.
It is an odd thing to describe, and requires a certain suspension of disbelief.
How did my father's thoughts and feelings find their way into my mind, articulated with his speech patterns, his choice of words? I still cannot explain it. I did the thing I was used to doing in my solitary meditation: I took up pen and journal and wrote the words as they came to me, unedited by my own thoughts.
The first wonderful thing that occurred was that, upon my phoning Angelika from a rest stop on my journey, she heard these words from my father and accepted them as reassuring proof of his loving presence. The second wonderful thing was that these inspiring messages continued until Angelika's death nine months later, offering information about the beauty of the afterlife, as well as guidance in experiencing the presence of God, in opening to love and letting go.
I am now convinced that this balm is universally available: There is everywhere communication with "the Other Side" and reassurance that we are not alone. Death is not the end of life. This is great news, and I hope sharing my story will encourage more and more people to "come out of the closet" to tell their own experience of reassurance of the continuing nature of life.
Perhaps your mother, as she prepared to die, began to see or even speak to family or friends who had already left this world. Perhaps you received a reassuring sign from a husband, father or daughter who had died -- something that gave you the special knowledge that they were still present with you. You might have seen a rainbow or heard a song they loved or maybe you had a certain "knowing" that they were beside you as you sat in your grieving.
These occurrences are so common, and yet we often keep them secret, fearing the ridicule of even our closest friends. Our materialistic culture confidently dismisses the as yet unproven phenomenon of "life after life" -- and who of us wants to be scorned for our most cherished memories?
This silence doesn't serve us, because we are withholding a truth the world is longing to hear. Driven by our fear of death, we anxiously cling to unnecessary possessions and work ourselves into stress and exhaustion to accomplish or collect enough to convince ourselves that we are safe from loss. But these collections, like all impermanent things, will inevitably be lost. That is the only guarantee in this material world.
What will not be lost is our imperishable treasure: Eternal life. In my view this priceless gift is not reserved for special chosen groups, but is our very nature. The spark of true life in us is not confined to our body's time on this planet. And what peace and joy this knowledge brings! What wonders it freely offers us.
I find great joy in communicating the remembrance of the greatest news of all: We are not alone. There is unseen help in crisis and in passing from this body's life. We do not truly die.
(Pass it on. …)
Jane Smith Bernhardt is an artist, performer and writer. She is a graduate of the interfaith Guild for Spiritual Guidance. Her book, "WE ARE HERE: Love Never Dies," chronicles an extraordinary period of three family deaths and many miracles of joy and forgiveness.