SATURDAY READING: Death Does Not Exist, by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
From On Life After Death
This morning I’m going to share with you how a two-pound “nothing” found her way, her path in life. I’m going to share with you how you too can be convinced that this life, this time that you are in a physical body, is a very, very short span of your total existence. It’s a very important time because you are here for a very special purpose which is yours and yours alone. If you live well, you will never have to worry about dying. You can do that even if you have only one day to live. The question of time is not terribly important; it is a man-made, artificial concept anyway.
To live well means basically to learn to love. I was very touched yesterday when the speaker mentioned, “Faith, love, and hope, but the biggest of the three is love.” In Switzerland, you are confirmed when you are sixteen, and you are given a saying that is supposed to be a leading word throughout your life. Since I was one of triplets, they had to find one saying for the three of us. They picked love, faith, and hope, and I happened to be love.
I’m going to talk with you about love today, which is life, and death; it is all the same thing.
I mentioned briefly that I was born an “unwanted” child. It wasn’t that my parents didn’t want a child. They wanted a girl very badly, but a pretty, beautiful, ten-pound girl. They did not expect triplets, and when I came, I was only two pounds and very ugly with no hair, and it was a terrible, terrible disappointment. Fifteen minutes later, the second child came. After twenty minutes more, a six-and-a-half-pound baby arrived, and my parents were very happy. But they would have liked to give two of them back.
I think that nothing in life is a coincidence, not even my birth, because it gave me the feeling all my life that I had to prove that even a two-pound “nothing” was worthy of living. Therefore I worked very hard, like some blind people do who think that they have to work ten times as hard to keep a job.
When I was a teenager, and the war was over, I needed and wanted to do something for this world which was in such a terrible mess. I had promised myself that if the war ever ended, I would walk all the way to Poland and Russia and start first aid stations and help stations along the way. I kept my promise, and this was, I think, when my work on death and dying started.
I personally saw the concentration camps. I personally saw trainloads of baby shoes, trainloads of human hair from the victims of the concentration camps being taken to Germany to make pillows. When you smell the concentration camps with your own nose, when you see the crematoriums when you are very young like I was, when you are really an adolescent in a way, you will never ever be the same again. What you see is the inhumanity of man, and you realize that each one of us is capable of becoming a Nazi monster. That part of you you have to acknowledge. But each one of us also has the ability to become a Mother Teresa. She is one of my saints – a woman in India who picks up dying children, starving, dying people, and believes very strongly that even if they are dying in her arms, that if she has been able to love them for five minutes, that this makes it worthwhile that they have lived. She is a very beautiful human being, if you ever have a chance to see her.
When I came to the United States after having been a country doctor in Switzerland, and a very happy one, I had prepared my life to go to India. I wanted to be a physician in India like Schweitzer was in Africa. But two weeks before I was supposed to leave I was notified that the whole project in India had fallen through. Instead of the jungles of India I ended up in the jungles of New York, married to an American who took me to the one place in the world which was at the bottom of my list of places I ever wanted to live. But even that was no coincidence, because to go to a place that you love is easy. To go to a place where you hate every bit of it, is a test.
I ended up at Manhattan State Hospital, another dreadful place. Not really knowing any psychiatry, being very lonely and miserable and unhappy but not wanting to make my new husband unhappy, I opened up to the patients. I identified myself with their misery and their loneliness and their desperation, and suddenly my patients started to talk, even people who didn’t talk for twenty years. They started to verbalize, and share their feelings, and I suddenly knew that I was not alone in my misery. Suddenly I felt only half as miserable working in a state hospital. For two years I did nothing but live and work with these patients. I spent every Hanukkah, Christmas, Passover, and Easter with them, just to share their loneliness, not knowing much psychiatry, the theoretical psychiatry that one ought to know. I barely understood their English, but we loved each other. We really cared. After two years, 94 percent of those patients were discharged, self-supporting, into New York City, many of them having their own jobs and being able to function.
What I’m trying to say to you is that knowledge helps, but knowledge alone is not going to help anybody. If you do not use your head and your heart and your soul, you are not going to help a single human being. This is what so-called hopeless, chronic schizophrenic patients taught me. In all my work with patients, whether they were chronic schizophrenics, severely retarded children, or dying patients, each one has a purpose. Each one can not only learn from and be helped by you, but they can actually become your teacher. That is true of six-month-old retarded babies who can’t speak. This is true of hopeless schizophrenic patients who behave like animals when you see them for the first time. But the best teachers in the world are dying patients.
Dying patients, when you take the time to sit with them, teach you about the stages of dying. They teach you how they go through the denial and the anger, and the “Why me?”, and question God and even reject him for a while. They bargain with him, and then go through horrible depressions. Yet if they have another human being who cares, they may be able to reach a stage of acceptance. That is not just typical of dying, and really has nothing to do with dying. We only call it the “stages of dying” for lack of a better phrase. If you lose a boyfriend or a girlfriend, if you lose your job or you are forced to move from your home where you have lived for fifty years and have to go to a nursing home, some people if they lose a parakeet, some if they only lose their contact lenses go through the same “stages of dying.” This is, I think, the true meaning of suffering.
All the hardships that you face in life, all the trials and tribulations, all the nightmares and all the losses, most people view as a curse, as a punishment by God, as something negative. If you would only realize that nothing that comes to you is negative. I mean nothing. All the trials and tribulations, the greatest losses, things that make you say, “If I had known about this I would never have been able to make it through,” are gifts to you. It’s like somebody has to temper the iron. It is an opportunity that you are given to grow. This is the sole purpose of existence on this planet Earth. You will not grow if you sit in a beautiful flower garden and somebody brings you gorgeous food on a silver platter. But you will grow if you are sick, if you are in pain, if you experience losses, and if you do not put your head in the sand but take the pain and learn to accept it not as a curse, or a punishment, but as a gift to you with a very, very specific purpose.
I will give you a clinical example. There was a young woman in one of my workshops – they are one-week live-in retreats – who did not have to face the death of a child, but she faced several what we call “little deaths.” Not very little in her eyes. When she gave birth to her second baby girl, which she was very much looking forward to, she was told in a not very humane way that the child was severely retarded, in fact that the child would never be able to even recognize her as her mother. When she became aware of this her husband walked out on her, and she was suddenly faced with two young, very needy, very dependent children, no money, no income, and no help.
She went through a terrible denial. She couldn’t even use the word, “retardation.” She then went through fantastic anger at God, and cursed him. First he didn’t exist at all, and then he was a mean old you-know-what. Then she went through tremendous bargaining – if the child would at least be educable, or recognize her as a mother. Then she found some genuine meaning in having this child, and I’ll simply share with you how she finally resolved it. It began to dawn on her that nothing in life is a coincidence. She tried to look at this child and tried to figure out what purpose a little vegetable-like human being has on this Earth. She found the solution, and I’m sharing this with you in the form of a poem that she wrote. She’s not a poetess, but it’s a very moving poem. She identifies herself with her child and talks to her godmother. She called the poem, “To My Godmother.”
What is a godmother?
I know you’re very special,
You waited many months for my arrival.
You were there and saw me when only minutes old,
and changed my diapers when I had been there just a few days.
You had dreams of your first godchild.
She would be precocious like your sister,
You’d see her off to school, college, and marriage.
How would I turn out? A credit to those who have me?
God had other plans for me. I’m just me.
No one ever used the word precocious about me.
Something hasn’t hooked up right in my mind:
I’ll be a child of God for all time.
I’m happy. I love everyone, and they love me.
There aren’t many words I can say.
But I can communicate and understand affection, warmth, softness and love.
There are special people in my life.
Sometimes I sit and smile and sometimes cry, I wonder why?
I am happy and loved by special friends.
What more could I ask for?
Oh sure, I’ll never go to college, or marry.
But don’t be sad. God made me very special.
I cannot hurt. Only love.
And maybe God needs some children who simply love.
Do you remember when I was baptized,
you held me, hoping I wouldn’t cry and you wouldn’t drop me?
Neither happened and it was a very happy day.
Is that why you are my godmother?
I know you are soft and warm, give me love,
but there is something very special in your eyes.
I see that look and feel that love from others.
I must be special to have so many mothers.
No, I will never be a success in the eyes of the world.
But I promise you something very few people can.
Since all I know is love, goodness and innocence,
eternity will be ours to share, my godmother.
This is the same mother who, a few months before, was willing to let this toddler crawl out near the swimming pool while she pretended to go to the kitchen so the child would fall into the swimming pool and drown. I hope that you appreciate the change that took place in this mother.
This is what takes place in all of you if you are willing to always look at anything that happens in your life from both sides of the coin. There is never just one side to it. You may be terminally ill, you may have a lot of pain, and you may not find anyone to talk with. You may feel that it’s unfair to take you away in the middle of your life, that you haven’t really started to live yet. Look at the other side of the coin.
You are suddenly one of the few fortunate people who can throw away all the “baloney” that you have carried with you. You can go to somebody and say, “I love you,” when they can still hear it. They can skip the schmaltzy eulogies afterwards because you know that you are here for a very short time. You can finally do the things that you really want to do. How many of you truly do the kind of work that you really want to do from the bottom of your heart? If you don’t, you should go home and change your work. Do you know what I’m saying to you? Nobody should do anything because somebody tells them they ought to. That is like forcing a child to learn a profession that is not its own. If you listen to your inner voice, your inner wisdom – which is far greater than anybody else’s as far as you are concerned – you will not go wrong and you will know what to do with your life. And then time is no longer relevant.
After working with dying patients for many years and learning from them what life is all about, what regrets they have at the end of their lives when it seems to be too late, I began to wonder what death is all about.
In my classroom, a certain Mrs. Schwartz gave us our first account of a patient who had an out-of-body experience. This led to a collection of cases from all over the world. We have hundreds of cases, from Australia to California. They all share the same common denominator. They are all fully aware of shedding their physical body, and death, as we understand it in scientific language, does not really exist. Death is simply a shedding of the physical body like the butterfly shedding its cocoon. It is a transition to a higher state of consciousness where you continue to perceive, to understand, to laugh, and to be able to grow. The only thing you lose is something that you don’t need anymore, your physical body. It’s like putting away your winter coat when spring comes, you know that the coat is shabby and you don’t want to wear it anymore. That’s virtually what death is all about.
Not one of the patients who has had an out-of-body experience was ever again afraid to die. Not one of them, in all our cases. Many of our patients also said that besides the feeling of peace and equanimity they have, and the knowledge that they can perceive but not be perceived, they also have a sense of wholeness. This means that somebody who was hit by a car and had a leg amputated, sees his amputated leg on the highway. But when he gets out of his physical body, he has both legs. One of our female patients was blinded in a laboratory explosion, and the moment she was out of her physical body she was able to see, was able to describe the whole accident and describe people who dashed into the laboratory. When she was brought back to life she was totally blind again. This may help you to understand why many, many of these patients resent attempts to artificially bring them back when they are in a far more beautiful, more perfect place.
The most impressive part, perhaps, for me, has to do with my recent work with dying children. Almost all of my patients are children now. I take them home to die. I prepare the families and siblings in order to have “my children” die at home. The biggest fear of children is to be alone, to be lonely, to not be with someone. At the moment of this transition, you are never, ever alone. You are never alone now, but you don’t know it. But at the time of transition, your guides, your guardian angels, people whom you have loved and who have passed on before you, will be there to help you. We have verified this beyond a shadow of a doubt, and I say this as a scientist. There will always be someone to help you with this transition. Most of the time it is a mother or father, a grandparent, or a child if you have lost a child. Sometimes it is people you didn’t know were “on the other side” already.
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