Monday, January 24, 2022

Voices of Experience: At Heaven's Door

My lifetime of experiences and my scholarly research suggest that what awaits us at the end of this life is awesome, glorious, and loving, a reminder that there are gifts to be found at every stage of life, including its end.  ~ William J. Peters

In 2000, end-of-life therapist William Peters was volunteering at the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco when he had an extraordinary experience as he was reading aloud to a patient: he suddenly felt himself floating in midair, completely out of his body. The patient, who was also aloft, looked at him and smiled. The next moment, Peters felt himself return to his body…but the patient never regained consciousness and died. Perplexed and stunned by what had happened, Peters began searching for other people who’d shared similar experiences.

He would spend the next twenty years gathering and meticulously categorizing their stories to identify key patterns and features of what is now known as the “shared crossing” experience. The similarities, which cut across continents and cultures and include awe-inspiring visual and sensory effects, and powerful emotional after-effects, were impossible to ignore. Long whispered about in the hospice and medical communities, these extraordinary moments of final passage are openly discussed and explained in his book, At Heaven's Door: What Shared Journeys to the Afterlife Teach About Dying Well and Living Better. The excerpt that follows is reprinted with permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

Grief is almost synonymous with death. Cultures from the ancient Celts of Northern Europe to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia all performed their own version of the death wail.The Irish later had a tradition of hiring “keeners,” women who came to funerals to loudly weep over the dead. Death produces in many of us a great reservoir of emotion, and, for many, a profound sadness. So it has been both profoundly humbling and deeply revelatory to discover that shared death experiences can lead to significant and often lasting comfort. It is also important to note that an SDE does not need to be complex or multilayered to have a deep impact. Its comfort can arrive in many forms.

Carl P.’s father had struggled with prostate cancer for more than a decade. He was diagnosed with a recurrence while visiting Carl in California. His dad stayed to undergo treatment, giving him a chance to spend time with his son and baby granddaughter. Then he returned to his house in Massachusetts. Carl made a surprise trip to see him for a weekend and thought he was doing well. The next Sunday, Carl recalls, “I had put my phone away. We had scheduled a family day and then dinner with friends.” He returned home and saw that he had missed eighteen calls. “My sisters and my mom had been trying to reach me. I don’t remember the actual call very well. My dad had died of heart failure. It was just sort of shock.” Carl told his wife, and then, as he describes it, “I basically ended up wandering outside and just bawling.” He walked around in a haze until he decided to sit down on the front steps. He recalls asking the question that was at the forefront of his mind: “Where is my dad?” And he spoke the words out loud.

What happened next remains crystal clear in Carl’s mind. “I just had this profound shift happen. This feeling of being with my father came to me. Not being with my father as we had been earlier that year right here on the porch but being with my father as it felt when I was a little boy. That feeling of ‘Everything’s all right. You’re with your dad. Everything’s gonna be fine.’” With that feeling came an overriding sense of what Carl identifies as “profound peace. It just calmed me down. I knew everything was fine. He was there with me. And he was going on to the next thing, whatever that was. Whatever that is.” Carl was struck by the fact that the depth of this feeling was like a vibration, something “deep in my bones, in every fiber of my body. It was physical, like a switch had been flipped. I could feel it in my bones and my cells that my dad was there with me.” In the SDE framework, these features would be most prominently overwhelming emotion, combined with heightened clarity, particularly sensing in-formation.

Carl has never been a religious person. While he accompanied his parents to church as a child in Florida, “I haven’t ever attended religious services of my own accord. I was trained in the sciences, so I come with a healthy dose of skepticism, but also with a real reverence for the natural world and a deep understanding of not having the answers.” Carl’s experience on his front steps ultimately became a “source of strength for me.”

About four years after his father died, a business partnership failed, and Carl found himself “pushed out” and struggling with what to do next. During one restless night, he got up and went for a walk. Again, he was struck by the sensation of “really feeling like my dad and my grandmother, who had passed a number of years before that, were there with me and for me, giving me strength in that time of need.”

Carl’s powerful sense of his father’s presence did not end his grief, but it did change his perspective, and it became a source of comfort. “I miss my dad, and I wish I could call him up and be with him and spend time with him. I grieved and I was sad, but it doesn’t feel like a tragedy. It feels like he’s in the place he needs to be.” The SDE also changed Carl’s thoughts on dying. “You don’t really know how prepared you are, but I do feel at ease with it. I don’t feel afraid.”

© 2022 by William J. Peters

About the Author:
William Peters is the author of At Heaven's Door: What Shared Journeys to the Afterlife Teach About Dying Well and Living Better. He is the founder of the Shared Crossing Project and director of its Research Initiative. Recognized as a global leader in the field of shared death studies, he has spent decades studying end-of-life experiences. Previously, Peters worked as a hospice volunteer with the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco and as a teacher and social worker in Central and South America. A practicing grief and bereavement therapist, he holds degrees from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and UC Berkeley. His work on end-of-life is informed by his therapeutic work with individuals and families, personal experiences with death and dying across cultures, and his family’s own end-of-life journeys. For more information, visit the Shared Crossing Project website.

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