In my early childhood years, death was a complete mystery to me. I never gave it a great deal of thought—as it merely seemed to be something that would occasionally happen to the hero in a movie. In my limited experience, he’d valiantly fall in a hail of gunfire or somehow take his last dying gasp after saving someone from a similar fate. Sometimes, while playing “cops and robbers” or “army”, I’d re-enact scenes from my favorite TV shows or movies with my friends. I’d die a sudden and tragic death—most often from a barrage of imaginary bullets or a horrific grenade explosion. I’d fly dramatically through the air, land in a heap in the tall grass, and painfully struggle to take my “final” breath.
I couldn’t hold my breath for long however, so I’d usually resume breathing rather quickly. Sometimes, when I didn’t get up right away and start carrying on the battle as another character, I’d lay in the grass, silently trying to imagine what it would be like to really be dead. I’d close my eyes and lie as still as I could. Was it like going to sleep, where one just never woke up again? If one was buried, did they just lay there in the grave, feeling the heavy darkness and smelling the musty smell of the earth that covered them? That thought always gave me “the creeps”. On occasion, I’d imagine what it would be like to see everyone at my funeral. There would be mountains of flowers everywhere, of course, and a grieving crowd of thousands—with tearful mourners praising me in lavish eulogies that would last for days.
My childish musings about death and dying came to a sudden end however, when my maternal grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. After a valiant but short battle against it, she died of the disease. At the age of nine, I’d never lost anyone I knew before and, until then, death had never seemed real. I’ll never forget the evening my family and I attended her visitation service and the moment I first saw her casket. It was placed high on a draped platform and surrounded by flowers in the center of the funeral home’s hushed, dimly lit viewing room. I was frightened and, when it came time to say goodbye, I refused to approach the casket or the body in it. With no small amount of reassurance, my father took my hand, walked me over, and lifted me up to see. Through fearful, tear-filled eyes, I was both horrified and amazed to see how lifeless and two-dimensional my grandmother’s body appeared. It seemed as if she had been replaced with a figure made of wax. I just couldn’t understand how someone I loved could be alive one moment—and forever gone the next.
As I think about my limited childhood understanding and thoughts about death, I’m grateful for the amazing expansion of experience that has led to my present understanding. I now know that life is eternal—and what we perceive as death is merely a transition from one level of consciousness to another. It’s been a long process of spiritual discovery and many unanswered questions remain, but each and every day I become more and more confident in this knowledge. Now, when I think about my last breath, I try not to concern myself with the when, how, or where of it—although my intention is to hold that day off for a good, long time. Instead, I try to concern myself more with the quality of the time I have left. My new focus is on how much change I may make for the better and how much I may learn and enjoy the wonderful life I’ve been given. And that, to me, has made all the difference.
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