Do previously deceased friends and family meet us when we die?
My mother was a scientist. She was born in 1926 and grew up in Lorain, Ohio, working in the steel mills during her summers during and after WWII when there was a shortage of able bodied men. She earned a PhD in Chemistry at Ohio State, was a postdoctoral candidate at Cambridge University (England), and taught organic chemistry later in life. She believed that when we die, we are dead. Full stop.
She lived to age 92. We started to notice something was amiss when she thawed the Cornish game hens for Christmas dinner too far in advance and they spoiled in the cooler. She was an avid cook and would never normally have let that happen. Then, she caught the flu in January and refused to eat or drink. She lived by herself, my father having died several years earlier. My sister lived near-by and encouraged her to take better care of herself, but it was clear that she needed to live with one of us during her recovery. Thus began a two year experience when she moved in with my husband and me in upstate NY. We had the extra room and were happy to have her there. We had no idea what was involved in taking care of someone who had been so mentally clear and vibrant during her whole life as she developed all the symptoms of dementia.
My Mom used to do crossword puzzles and Sudokus every morning of her retired life. She would sit in the sunny dining room of her home, drinking coffee and reading the paper. She had a great sense of humor and bright wit. When she moved in with us, she slowly lost interest in crossword puzzles, first wanting us to help her, then having us read them out loud and her contributing when she could, and finally, she had no interest in them at all. There are people more qualified than I am to talk about the symptoms and stages of dementia. I will just say that, until the end, she kept her sense of humor and would occasionally have lucid moments, like when she sat upright as we watched the BBC news at night and blurted out “That’s John Bolton!” as he appeared on the screen. She peacefully slept long hours most of every day, and probably the most difficult thing was that she occasionally fell. Since her skin was so thin, we had to have plenty of butterfly bandages on hand.
The age old question of “What happens when we die?” was ever-present in my mind during her last days and weeks. My Mom wanted to be cremated, and over the last few years I would sometimes ask what she wanted us to do with her ashes. She would always reply the same thing – “Do whatever you want; I won’t be there to care one way or the other.” It didn’t make it any easier for us in planning what we should do, but it re-enforced her belief that when you were dead, you were gone.
One evening during her last few weeks, I asked how she was feeling. She said, “I want to go home.” I was prepared for this, after reading a brochure given to me by Hospice people who were coming in to visit her a couple of times every week. “Where is home?” I asked, hoping to get more insight into what she was experiencing. She rattled off the address of the home where she grew up in Lorain, Ohio. “Who is there?” I asked. “Ruth,” she said, Ruth being her older sister, now dead. “How about Carl or John?” I asked, naming her two living brothers. “No,” she said “they aren’t there.” “How about your Mom?” “Yes, she’s there with Ruth.”
So, although she didn’t believe anything happened after you died, she might have believed or experienced that her relatives who were already dead were waiting for her or were there to help her with the process of “going home.” It’s fascinating to think about.
I’m also a scientist but with more of a spiritual bent. Although I don’t know what happens to us when we die, after hearing what my Mom had to say, I do believe there are memories and people who help us transition, to try to reduce fear and suffering associated with moving into the unknown. I guess I won’t know for sure until I experience it myself.
Carol Armitage is on the Advisory Council of Circle of Friends for the Dying, has a Master’s Degree in electrical engineering from Princeton University, and knows what caregiving for an elderly parent is all about.