A question for Christians about the process of dying - Mothering Forums
Spirituality > A question for Christians about the process of dying
verde's Avatar verde 12:24 AM 05-01-2010
Recently I read a book called Final Gifts written by hospice nurses about people in the process of dying. It's a book loaded with anecdotes about the experiences of people who are extremely close to death. These experiences include seeing people who have died (parents, friends) who wait for the dying person to help them cross over and also of seeing a place of light. I've talked with people who read this book and I've also read lots of book reviews. Overwhelmingly people like this book. The exceptions have been a few people, all self-described Christians, who have warned other Christians to steer away from this book because the book suggests that everyone, no matter their religious beliefs, will have a loving presence to greet them after they die. This is, indeed, what the book suggests. The few self-described Christians did not like this suggestion at all.

So I'm curious what some Christians think about this? If you read a book full of anecdotes that does not jive with your particular theology then what are those experiences? How would those particular Christians explain those described experiences?

I understand that not all Christians believe the exact same thing and that many Christians do like the book. I'm wondering specifically about the Christians who do not like the book because it does not reconcile with their beliefs.

The Amber Lily's Avatar The Amber Lily 01:45 AM 05-01-2010
My first thought would be the collection of the stories: were only 'happy' stories collected? Were 'unhappy' stories rejected? Who did the interviewing/writing and how can I know if it's really true?

I am processing through this kind of thing at the present, because I work as a care aide for the elderly, and especially in the last year, have worked closely with those in the last stage of their life. I work with people who have moderate to severe Alzheimer's/dementia and are of various religious backgrounds.

One atheist lady was 'actively palliative', meaning very very close to death, and she was deeply fearful of closing her eyes because she did not know what awaited her. I have seen other people (whose specific religious beliefs were unknown to me) become extremely restless and agitated, in a way only palliative-given morphine relieved. I have also seen the clear peace of two known Christians in their 'palliative' time with no morphine.

Are these 'events' physical, spiritual, or just a person's personality and preparedness for death? I don't know. How Alzheimer's/dementia affects a person I am only learning, and likewise a person's religious beliefs; how the two interact with each other and and also with each individual personality is equally mysterious. I have no firm conclusions, only questions, wonderings, and speculations.

I personally do not believe that every person receives a peaceful, wonderful entry 'into heaven'. It is my interpretation of several passages in the Bible, some of which are the words of Jesus. Also, because of some of the 'exits' I have seen. However, that is just my thought on the matter. I cannot say for sure because I have not been a part of any or all 'crossing over' experiences.

I do believe that it is through Jesus that anyone 'gets in' to heaven, and that He is the judge of who makes it and who doesn't, regardless of each person's faith/religion. That is a really long subject though, which I'm not sure if you're asking about.

Does an anxious, frightened, and/or extremely agitated 'exit' mean they did not make it to heaven? Does a peaceful 'exit' mean they did? I don't know.

Does a collection of truly peaceful death stories from people of various religions firmly guarantee a peaceful death and loving 'reception' for every single person? It might suggest the possibility, but I certainly don't think it could be a guarantee.
Bluegoat's Avatar Bluegoat 09:22 AM 05-01-2010
Hmm, I am pretty suspicious of books like this, for a few reasons. For one thing, I just do not correlate such reports with what happens when we die, because the people are not actually dead. The brain is known to do many strange things, and really we have no way to differentiate those from authentic spiritual experiences in these situations.

And as well, like the pp, not all deaths are peaceful, and if a book implies they are, I think there might be an agenda.

I suspect concerns that people will be misled into putting too much weight on such stories is the worry of the people you mention. Of course since those people have other reasons for rejecting what seems to be the author's message they are likely to be especially sensitive to that. But in my experience many people do get caught up in this sort of speculation, I suppose because the desire to have a guarantee of a happy afterlife can be very powerful.
cappuccinosmom's Avatar cappuccinosmom 10:33 AM 05-01-2010
I do believe these things occasionally happened. My mom had a patient whom she is fairly convinced saw an angel. Someone appeared to him, in a form that was especially relevant to his life, and gave him comfort/encouragement, and then disappeared.

However, she and my dad also saw the most horrible and fearful end of life experiences with some of their patients. It's not all sweetness and light and I would be suspicious of a book that presents it as such.
The Amber Lily's Avatar The Amber Lily 02:46 PM 05-01-2010
I also agree with BlueGoat, that I would be concerned that people would put too much weight on the stories.

Cappuccinosmom, what did your mom and dad do? Did they notice more peaceful deaths among certain religions, or was it equally spread across a variety?
cappuccinosmom's Avatar cappuccinosmom 03:40 PM 05-01-2010
My parents were both family practice doctors. For a long time they worked in rural areas, so their range of care was pretty much birth through death.

All of the stunningly peaceful deaths they noted were people they knew to be deeply in relationship with God through Jesus. But I don't know about the actual stats. I'm sure there were plenty of church-goers who didn't end as happily. One of the worst my mother saw was a woman who was dying of cancer and had been told by her church she didn't have enough faith or she'd be healed. My mom stayed at her bedside trying to comfort her and fend off the people who were telling her this, but she still died frustrated and raging at God.
verde's Avatar verde 02:08 AM 05-02-2010
No, not all of the deaths were peaceful.

I don't think there was a particular agenda. The authors are 2 nurses who reported their experiences working with hospice patients and came to certain conclusions based on what they witnessed. They saw similar patterns from a variety of people who held a variety of beliefs and reported the patterns.

I'll try to clarify my question. The authors witnessed events in which dying people saw people from their past, usually loved ones, waiting for them. These dying people were often conscious and could clearly describe who they saw. Usually these experiences were comforting. Some of these people were not Christians. My question is this: if you have certain Christian beliefs then what do you think these dying people actually experienced?
genifer's Avatar genifer 06:18 AM 05-02-2010
Verde, Im a christian and Im just going to be honest with you. I dont know what to make of those kinds of experiences. Its as simple as that. It doesnt fit in with what my worldview tells me about afterlife tho. But having not experienced anything close to witnessing anything like that I cant say much about it from experience.
katelove's Avatar katelove 06:35 AM 05-02-2010
Quote:
Originally Posted by verde View Post
I'll try to clarify my question. The authors witnessed events in which dying people saw people from their past, usually loved ones, waiting for them. These dying people were often conscious and could clearly describe who they saw. Usually these experiences were comforting. Some of these people were not Christians. My question is this: if you have certain Christian beliefs then what do you think these dying people actually experienced?
The Bible suggests that the relationships we have on earth will not be the same in heaven. For example the story of the woman who is widowed and remarries seven times. Jesus is asked who her husband will be in heaven and he responds that none of the men will be as the relationship of husband and wife will not exist in heaven. So, possibly, the people who are unhappy with the book are thinking along those lines?
Bluegoat's Avatar Bluegoat 09:51 AM 05-02-2010
Quote:
Originally Posted by verde View Post
No, not all of the deaths were peaceful.

I don't think there was a particular agenda. The authors are 2 nurses who reported their experiences working with hospice patients and came to certain conclusions based on what they witnessed. They saw similar patterns from a variety of people who held a variety of beliefs and reported the patterns.

I'll try to clarify my question. The authors witnessed events in which dying people saw people from their past, usually loved ones, waiting for them. These dying people were often conscious and could clearly describe who they saw. Usually these experiences were comforting. Some of these people were not Christians. My question is this: if you have certain Christian beliefs then what do you think these dying people actually experienced?
I would be inclined to say very little. I would not necessarily draw a spiritual conclusion, but I wouldn't preclude one either.

To me, if the people are still conscious, they are alive, and such experiences may not have anything to do with the afterlife, and everything to do with the biological process of dying. It is observed in animals shortly before death for example that there are chemical responses in the brain that seem to parallel such human experiences.

I do think that spiritual experiences happen, but I also tend to think they are meant in most cases to be personal. I just don't worry about them or draw a lot of conclusions about other people that have them.
verde's Avatar verde 01:55 PM 05-02-2010
Bluegoat, I understand your perspective. But then why would some of the Christians warn other Christians from reading the book?
Bluegoat's Avatar Bluegoat 03:17 PM 05-02-2010
Quote:
Originally Posted by verde View Post
Bluegoat, I understand your perspective. But then why would some of the Christians warn other Christians from reading the book?
I imagine they think people might take them very seriously and as evidence about the spiritual life. I have met people who do take such stories that way, so it isn't a ridiculous idea.

And what might make them more worried is if they attribute such visions to demons. Some Christian groups do so quite a lot.
Thao's Avatar Thao 05:11 PM 05-02-2010
Go to Amazon or Borders and read the reviews of the people who didn't like the book, that'll give you your answer .

On Amazon, of the 4 people who gave the book one star, one was an ICU nurse whose observations did not line up with those in the book, one was a skeptic who didn't like the fact that the book assumes that life after death is real, and 2 were Christians who, like Bluegoat said, disliked it because they fear it will make dying people less likely to turn to Jesus before they die.

Bluegoat, don't you think it is sort of a double-edged sword to say that the spiritual experiences described in the book are biological in nature? Because it opens up the door to the possibility that other spiritual experiences are nothing more than biological as well, right?

Personally I'm interested in reading this book. Thanks, Verde!
The Amber Lily's Avatar The Amber Lily 07:31 PM 05-02-2010
Quote:
Originally Posted by verde View Post
I'll try to clarify my question. The authors witnessed events in which dying people saw people from their past, usually loved ones, waiting for them. These dying people were often conscious and could clearly describe who they saw. Usually these experiences were comforting. Some of these people were not Christians. My question is this: if you have certain Christian beliefs then what do you think these dying people actually experienced?
I guess my faith in God and Jesus allows me to say 'I just don't know' to a lot of things. There is enough that I do know and that makes sense to me that my allegiance is really absolute, regardless of all the remaining mysteries. We aren't told a lot about death and what exactly will happen the moment we die, and a lot of what we are told is either imagery or beyond our ability to understand.

I don't see it being impossible that God would give a comforting image of family to a person who is dying. I don't think there is specific Scripture stating for or against this possibility. It is just an idea, a possibility - and as such it should not be relied on as if it were an absolute fact.

Also, if like a pp said, if the act of seeing a loved on before death is a biological thing that does not make every other 'spiritual' experience biological. Hallucinations are very common, and very real for the people who see them. I experience this a lot in my work with Alzheimer/dementia clients and I wonder a lot about the nature of a hallucination. Is it simply a biological process? Is it a real spiritual thing that they can see that we can't? It's interesting.

Verde, do you feel like the posts here have answered your question?
verde's Avatar verde 11:02 PM 05-02-2010
Quote:
Verde, do you feel like the posts here have answered your question?
...well...not exactly. Bluegoat has come the closest by saying that some people may think it's demons. I did wonder about that.

Quote:
Personally I'm interested in reading this book. Thanks, Verde!
You're welcome. I liked the book because it had a message of a type of acceptance. I hope you get something positive from reading it.
Bluegoat's Avatar Bluegoat 11:44 PM 05-02-2010
Quote:
Originally Posted by Thao View Post

Bluegoat, don't you think it is sort of a double-edged sword to say that the spiritual experiences described in the book are biological in nature? Because it opens up the door to the possibility that other spiritual experiences are nothing more than biological as well, right?
In short, yes.

To be more loquacious, I think some things people think are spiritual experiences are nothing more than biological incidents. How to tell the difference? Well, the only way I can really think of is to see if the content of the experience is in line with truths you know in some other way. If I have an angelic vision of an angel telling me to murder my next-door neighbours, I am not likely to attribute it to God. This still raises questions as a Christian - what about Abraham, who was asked to do something so clearly not godly to most of us? Or Paul, whose vision was almost the opposite of everything he believed, and caused a real conversion?

In the history of the Christian Church, private revelation has always been treated pretty carefully for this reason. It is simply not seen as something that can change or modify Christian doctrine. Even when it is seen to be in line with Christian teachings, no one is obligated to accept it is a real religious experience.


On another note, I tend to think even authentic spiritual experiences have a biological component. To some extent this is obvious - if we see or hear an angel speaking to us, for example, there are at least chemical processes going on in the brain, and the physical components of our ears or eyes might be involved too. There is some evidence that there are parts of the brain that are related to feelings and perceptions we have during spiritual experiences. I don't think this makes spiritual experiences untrue, but it does suggest we could have such feelings or intuitions apart from actual spiritual content if those parts of the brain were accessed. This has even been done manually in experiments by stimulating those parts of the brain.

Which I suppose is is why I think that we need to let our reason be the chariot driver, with our intuition, emotion, and will being the horses kept well in hand.

For anyone that is interested, I heard about an interesting book that has come out recently called, I think, The Third Man Factor. It is about the phenomena of people in stressful situations perceiving the presence of an invisible other who is kind of a helpful companion. Apparently it is quite common. It sounded like an interesting book.
Bluegoat's Avatar Bluegoat 11:48 PM 05-02-2010
Another pop culture treatment of the topic of how we can determine truth in such experiences is the movie Contact, with Jodi Foster. Not really deep or anything, but it did raise some interesting questions about how we decide what is true. Although I found the Matthew McConaughey character totally annoying.
Liquesce's Avatar Liquesce 03:07 AM 05-03-2010
Quote:
Originally Posted by verde View Post
Bluegoat, I understand your perspective. But then why would some of the Christians warn other Christians from reading the book?
It might help to realize that some people make something of a hobby of leaving ideologically-based negative book reviews online. I read quite a lot of religious texts, and when there is a book that has amassed a substantial number of reviews it is a rare book that does not have at least a few from people saying, in effect, "this book speaks not the truth." Sometimes it is cross-religious and sometimes strictly sectarian, but it's usually there.

(The same can also be said of political books, and more potentially polarizing current events or history books, but that's another forum. IIRC birth and parenting books attract that sort of thing a lot as well. Among other genres as well, I'm sure. In short ... honestly some people just like to talk.)
Thao's Avatar Thao 02:08 PM 05-03-2010
Quote:
...well...not exactly. Bluegoat has come the closest by saying that some people may think it's demons. I did wonder about that.
The church (independent fundamentalist) that I grew up in would have definitely explained it by saying demons were causing the phenomenon, to trick people into straying from the truth. They believe that all non-Christian religions are satanic forgeries. But that certainly is not the view of all Christians!

As far as I can see, the only other possible explanations are that they are hallucinations caused by biological processes, or simply to suspend judgment and say one doesn't know what it means, like Amber Lily.

Thanks, Bluegoat, for that response. You are right that spiritual experiences are processed through our biological apparatus, just like everything else. It makes sense that there would be real spiritual experiences and simulated ones (like people feeling a "phantom leg" after amputation). And while I agree with you that reason *should* be the arbitrator as to what is real and what is phantom, I also believe human reason is limited and quite frankly not up to the task. Which leaves us in the dark, really not able to know intellectually. We "know" based on deeply considered feelings of spiritual "rightness" or "wrongness"... which brings us back to biological factors... hmmm... but that is a different thread!

Verde, I've put the book on hold at our library. My parents are getting quite elderly and I'm the one who will be taking care of them, so I'm hoping this book will help me to prepare...
verde's Avatar verde 03:30 PM 05-03-2010
Quote:
Verde, I've put the book on hold at our library. My parents are getting quite elderly and I'm the one who will be taking care of them, so I'm hoping this book will help me to prepare...
Thao, another excellent book about dying is The Needs of the Dying by David Kessler. I read both of these books for a class I took. The Kessler book is filled with all kinds of practical advice that will help and prepare you for anyone's death. I found both books to be extremely compassionate about dying people and I felt better after reading them.

Liquesce, thank you for your helpful point. I had not considered that.

Bluegoat, I understand your point about biological processes. The same thing can be said about emotions. Love and Hate also have biological components but that makes them no less real and, at the same time, no less confusing in so many ways.

I thank everyone for their comments.
Up