By Kim Bateman
After death, few of us believe our souls loiter at the pearly gates with harp-playing cherubs awaiting our entrance to heaven. Some hope for a tunnel with light at the end, reunion with loved ones who have gone before, and all-encompassing love. Most of us really don’t know.
And not knowing can be very upsetting. As a clinical psychologist and a death doula, I have helped people at the end of life develop individual narratives to ease the anxiety of dying.
These stories are created by the dying person and/or their loved ones, and can be offered in the form of a guided visualization in the days leading up to the death. As you read the following examples, perhaps you can imagine your own desires for an end-of-life experience.
My first example is a dying philosophy professor who was also an atheist. He loved clove cigarettes and hot chocolate. He had always been attracted to Nietzsche’s nihilism. As his death approached, he became increasingly anxious about the nothingness that he believed would follow.
His daughter told him a story: “What if, at the moment of death, you smell a clove cigarette that leads you through an ornate doorway in Turin, Italy. The Caffè Fiorio is bustling with intellectuals engaged in animated conversation. At a small table near the back is Nietzsche himself, who waves you into the chair across from him. He passes you a good cup of chocolate and that delicious clove cigarette you’ve been smelling. He says, ‘Robert, we have so much to discuss.’”
The philosopher liked this story and asked his daughter to tell it to him several times in the weeks leading up to his death. Right before his passing, he called his daughter to his bedside and with a smile said, “I think I can smell the cloves.”
Another vision for crossing over comes from a woman who grew up lacking a clear and consistent reflection of her value. She sees herself standing in a grassy field on a warm summer day. A toddler appears in the distance and walks toward her. The girl has windblown, light hair and vivid green eyes. The woman recognizes the child as herself at age two and she is struck by her beauty.
Right behind the child is herself at age four, and then at six, and so on. All the children join the woman in a circle holding hands, and she is shaken by the pain they all feel. Each version of herself was taught that they were unlovable. They look deeply into each other’s eyes, a stereo of emerald, and all at once know that they are worthy of love. The woman feels a profound sense of healing as the pain dissolves. Slowly the circle becomes smaller, until finally the woman is hugging herself.
Here’s another: An English man with late-stage Parkinson’s used to be an avid sailor. He chose medical aid in dying to spare himself and his loved ones the suffering from the complete breakdown of his body and mind. As the date of his death approached, he became increasingly anxious because he realized he had no belief in an afterlife. What would follow seemed like a vast black hole.
So, we developed a guided visualization in which he was sailing in the English Channel. He could hear the clanking of the halyard and smell the brackish water. Seagulls called in the background. He set sail toward the path of sparkles in the blue-gray water. Each twinkle was like a sunburst of love, and soon the rudder was guiding itself. He sailed toward the “Clear Light.” In that light were his beloved sister and mother (both deceased), and the most powerful love he had ever experienced.
The man requested this guided visualization to feel a sense of peace before he ingested the prescribed lethal medicine. He quietly closed his eyes, fell asleep, and had a beautiful transition.
Death anxiety can be debilitating and can interfere with a peaceful passing. In the past 10 years, the death doula movement has sought to address the unease during this final rite of passage. Trained professionals assist families with end-of-life tasks such as: meaning making, designing legacy projects, identifying desires for the months and days leading up to the death, and setting the stage for the death itself. Death doulas also assist with identifying resources for the bereaved and work collaboratively with other health professionals such as palliative care teams and hospice. If you are interested in learning more about death doulas, visit INELDA (International End-of-Life Doula Association) at inelda.org. If you would like to develop your own crossing-over narrative, please contact me through kim-bateman.com.
~ Kim Bateman, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, death doula, storyteller, and college administrator. She is the author of the award-winning book “Crossing the Owl’s Bridge: A Guide for Grieving People Who Still Love.” She writes a death dialogues blog at kim-bateman.com, teaches about death and dying, and facilitates grief workshops. She also makes amazing banana cream pie.