As I was sitting with a dying patient the other night, her family and I began the inevitable discussion of life after death. The dying woman had been reaching her arms up towards the sky, and she periodically opened her eyes and appeared to be watching or looking at something or someone or someplace that was unseen by the rest of us. This behavior is common, and I see it at most every death with very few exceptions. Most of my patients are Christian, and they tell me they are unafraid of death because they know they are going to Heaven. However, what they are afraid of is the actual process of dying...the transition from this world into the next. Will there be pain? Will there be light? Will they make the transition by themselves? How will they know what to do? It is my personal belief that God is well aware of these fears. And so He eases that fear by sending someone from Heaven to assure the dying person and to guide them. A vast majority of my patients have conversations with people who are unseen by anyone else. More often than not, they see their deceased mothers. Sometimes it's a spouse, a father, or a child who has died. Sometimes they report seeing angels. This is what I believe was happening to the woman I was with the other night. She was seeing into the afterlife, and there were people she loved who were coming to greet her.
This experience got my wheels to turning about religion and the various religious beliefs that exist on this great big planet of ours. It has always been my nature to question the norm. I do not question it just for the sake of being argumentative. I do not question it because I am doubting my own beliefs. Usually, I am questioning simply out of curiosity. When I'm questioning religous beliefs, I find that people get defensive and tend to end the discussion rather quickly. It's not my intention to offend people; but I do like to talk about religion from a philosophical point of view, as well as a faith-based one. I like to ask lots of "what if" questions.
A co-worker of mine, who happens to be a nurse, shared with me that a recently deceased patient of hers had reported seeing Jesus prior to her death. The patient described Jesus has being Caucasian, having rosy cheeks, and having long brown hair. My co-worker smirked and cited this vision as evidence that Jesus' physical appearance was just as she herself had always pictured it...fair-skinned with long straight brown hair. I suggested that perhaps Jesus appeared to her patient specficially in that form so that she would recognize him. Perhaps Jesus did not look anything like that while he walked on the Earth, but if had he appeared to this woman in an unfamiliar form, she would not have recognized him. She may not have been open to this vision or been comforted by it, so he appeared to her in the only form that she knew. This seemed to offend my co-worker, and I guess I had rained on her parade a little bit. Again, it was not my intention to ruffle any feathers; I was truly only speculating out loud.
I once had a deaf patient who communicated only with American Sign Language. He had been deaf since birth, and he had never spoken a word or heard one. I was sitting with him as he was dying, and suddenly his eyes flew open. He pointed at something/someone unseen by me, and he followed it around the room with his eyes and with his finger. He looked at me with an incredulous expression on his face, as if to ask "Did you see that?" There was not an interpreter present, so I couldn't ask what he saw. I wondered if he saw angels, and that lead to another speculative question: Would an angel use sign language to speak to him? If an angel truly speaks (in the verbal sense) in a vision, wouldn't it stand to reason that he or she would speak in the native tongue of the person who is having the vision? So I had this beautiful image in my head of an angel using sign language to speak to my patient. I mentioned this to another co-worker, and she was pretty adamant that the angel wouldn't need to speak sign language because the patient would be "healed" and "perfect" upon entering Heaven, and he would be able to hear. I countered with "Maybe God doesn't consider deafness to be an imperfection...maybe that's something that we mortals have decided." What if "healing" someone who has known only deafness for his entire life would be like "healing" someone because they have blue eyes? My feeling was that perhaps if this patient has never heard a spoken word before, then there would be no need for him to have the ability to hear in Heaven...? My co-worker took great offense to this and snapped "Well, I know he's going to be perfect when he gets to Heaven, and he'll be healed from his deafness!" She walked away in a bit of a huff, thereby ending our debate.
So my questions ( I mean them rhetorically, but I'm open to reading responses) are these: When a person is seeing into the afterlife as they prepare to die, do they see the afterlife as it truly exists? Or is it all about one's own personal perception? Does God (or whatever Higher Being you believe in) send visions that are tailor-made to that person's personal beliefs? Visions that are manifested in a way that is consistent with that person's own experiences?
As I mentioned earlier, the community I serve is mostly Christian. After working eleven years with this hospice, I can count the number of non-Christian patients I've served on one hand. I've never been with a non-Christian in the last moments of his or her life. I think it would be interesting to sit with a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, or a member of another world religion and observe their behavior as they die. Will they also reach to Heaven? Will they see Jesus? Will they see angels? Will they see loved ones who have died? Or will their experience be something completely different because of their different perceptions and beliefs?
I will add these questions to my "Things to Ask God When I Get To Heaven" list.
***From "The Stairs", a song by INXS, referring to the different faiths around the world