I't was late evening, and I had just finished getting my wife, Dawn, ready for the night. I wanted to get to bed because recent experience told me that this, too, would be an active night, with Dawn waking up and wanting to talk (not necessarily to me but to others in the room unseen by me). She seemed agitated, a sure sign that another night of sleep deprivation was in the offing.
"You seem upset, Dawn. What is it?"
"I just don't know how to get from here to there." Her tone was one of consternation.
"From here to where?" Even though I was sure I knew the answer, I thought I should ask. Without hesitation, this fifty-one-year-old woman, who now appeared as if she were at least eighty, said, "Well, heaven, of course!"
The next day when I came home for lunch, I walked into our bedroom to find Dawn sitting up in her bed amid a completely changed atmosphere. "You look so happy, Honey!" I said, suspecting that perhaps she had received a call from one of her siblings or one of our kids.
"Oh, Ron. Those people who have been hanging around here have given me a ticket for the bus and have invited me to go with them!" She beamed as if she had just won the world's greatest sweepstakes.
In a very real sense that is exactly what had happened. I hardly needed to ask about the destination of this bus. I knew that for those with a ticket, those with the vision to really see, the sign over the windshield of this bus would read Heaven Bound.
This book is written because of that bus. Dawn's ticket for the bus was my ticket to a whole new world: the world of death and dying and of learning how best to stand with those who are awaiting their own bus.
STORIES NOT OF DEATH BUT OF LIFE
The stories related herein are stories of life rather than stories of death. These stories view life as a spiritual process that begins with birth, flows eventually to death, and continues on to a new life. Death is seen as a new kind of birthing.
This book addresses a variety of issues, such as grief and grieving, pain and suffering, letting go, the symbolic language of the dying, near-death experience, nearing death awareness, near-life experience, and learning how to listen to those who are on their way to death.
This book includes experiences of my own as a chaplain, a caregiver, and a bereaved husband. It also includes the stories of many people who are gone now, people who have, through their openness as they moved toward death, given us amazing glimpses of spiritual reality.
This book, as part of my present work with the dying, is driven by a firm belief in the value of story. It is from the stories of our lives that we find meaning and hope, or as master storyteller Father John Shea has said, we "tell, and retell" the stories "until we get them right." Shea's point is that the stories' details are secondary to the meaning that we attach to the stories. While the details may change, the meaning of the stories always remains the same, sharper each time we retell them, but the same.
Some of the stories I've collected here are my own. However, the bulk of this book comes from those who can no longer tell their own stories, those who have gone before us. And so, with a profound humility as we stand before the great "cloud of witnesses," I commit the audacious act of trying to speak for the silenced ones while protecting their anonymity by changing names and the details of certain circumstances.
LISTENING TO A DIFFERENT LANGUAGE
The language spoken by the dying may seem strange, new, and even frightening. Yet it is a language as ancient as Adam and Eve, and as new as the person who died minutes ago, mumbling something about going home. To listen to the dying is to be informed that there is indeed a journey, that a destination looms ahead, and that death is not the end.
Listening well to people as they make the transition from this world to the next requires the ability to hear with and from the heart. We who are standing vigil must not prejudge what the dying person is saying. Instead we must attempt to listen with the purity implied in one dictionary's definition of hearing and listening: "To hear is to listen to and consider, to regard with favor, to give primacy to the person speaking, to value that which is being uttered; to listen is to heed what is being communicated, and to attend to its meaning."
To do anything less is to neglect not only what is being communicated but perhaps even the person conveying the message as well. This is precisely what occurs when a dying person speaks to us of visions and experiences and we, in turn, attempt to keep that person grounded in "reality."
As Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has observed, "If people would listen more to their own intuitive spiritual quadrant . . . they would begin to comprehend the beautiful symbolic language that dying patients use when they try to convey to us their needs, their knowledge and their awareness." Creating that kind of a climatea climate in which the dying are free to share the richness of their visions and those at the bedside are free to listen and open to hearingis what this book is about. Perhaps in some small way this book may help us all co listen more carefully to the "intuitive spiritual quadrant" that exists within all of us and that the dying reveal through their words and faces. (pages 1-4)
THE SPIRITUAL CONNECTION
Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and thti the Spirit of God dwells in you?
1 corinthians 3:16
While it may be difficult for most of us to completely internalize the notion that God dwells within each one of us, it is always easier for us to accept the idea that God dwells within others whom we deem more worthy than ourselves. But anyone who has stood at the bedside of the dying knows that the indwelling of the Spirit of God bursts forth and takes up residence in the hearts and souls of those standing vigil. To be at the bedside of any dying person is to experience a moment of divine intervention; to be at the bedside of someone we love who is dying is to come as close as is possible in this life to experiencing God's love. What is more difficult is the acceptance that the spirits of our ancestors, ancestors never known, also dwell within us. The Native Peoples, however, are well tuned to the indwelling of the spirit of all life granted by the Great Spirit. When one is brought up to see that one's God creates all things as sacred the winged, the four legged, the fishes, even the rocks, the hills, and the riversthen it is a natural step to understand how the spirit of God and the ancestors dwell within us all.
If, as Richard J. Hauser, S.J., argues in his book, Moving in the Spirit: Becoming a Contemplative in Action, the "unitive way" is the ultimate spiritual stage in one's life journey to one's God where "advanced contemplation" is the highest quality of prayer, then it may be argued that the vast majority of those who are dying gradually have reached some measure of the unitive way. Those who will listen to the stories of the dying are spiritual directors, accompanying and at times guiding those who are at the last crossroad of life. Those who listen to the dying are like air controllers who are called upon by lost or lonely pilots to hear where they are and to call them in when conditions are right. (pages 153-4)
When the Dying Speak (Loyola Press, 2002) can be ordered through major on-line booksellers.