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Who really dies?

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Early in January, at the grand old age of eighty-eight, my mother died peacefully at home, surrounded by her family.  She had requested that her body be burned, and that the ashes be scattered under a beautiful tree, which she would leave up to us to choose.

Of course, as a doctor, I am not a stranger to death. In the hospital, I have witnessed patients dying every day, sadly including those who were still children. Although it is always both tragic and sacred when someone dies, the passing of my mother was the most powerful experience I have known, and it has prompted me to consider death in a new way. When it is your own mother, there are such deep impressions, a movie that has been fed by all the senses over one’s entire life: an archive of memories and images and smells and feelings that have been pressed deeply into the psyche.

Now her body is not here anymore. It has become ashes.

Here in Switzerland, we are not allowed to attend cremations these days, because of COVID restrictions. So,  during the time of the cremation I sat alone in the attic of our house. I wanted to accompany her transition in my own way. At the beginning, I felt that I could connect with her as before: she felt very tangible and present for me. Of course, I could not experience her through touch, or smell, or hearing her voice, but I was still feeling the connection my mother as I have known her.

I sat in meditation during the cremation. Then, suddenly the room started to get very warm. This increased to the point that I asked myself, “What is happening? Am I the one being cremated now, or is it her?” A deep silence set in, in which I experienced an orange light surrounding me. Now please remember, I am a medical doctor and a professor of pediatrics at the University. I am not generally a woo-woo guy. But despite my habitual skepticism, this light surrounded me, it moved into my body, and up through my spine. It was holding me, both from within and without.

In that moment, I had a recognition. “So now my mother has actually fully left her body. Only ashes remain. She now has no attachment anymore to the body and everything associated with it. She is free.”

This precipitated a powerful question for me. In the recognition that she had now left the body, I realized that I was aware of two separate things: the body that was now ashes, and what ever had left the body. Very quickly, I started to distinguish between what was now gone forever, and what was still left behind.

When she was alive, my mother Rosemarie was an eighty-eight year old Swiss woman. Now, clearly she has no age, and no nationality, and equally no gender. She has no name and every name. More important, towards the end of her life she was suffering, to some degree, from dementia.  My instinct tells me that that is no longer true.

What I experienced then — and I still experience now — as still remaining is more like a flavor of love, a flavor of light.  As I sat there with my eyes closed in the attic, I could feel myself distinct from this flavor of light, and at the same time completely one with it.

Everything that was separate and localized about Rosemarie, my mother, seemed at that moment to be complete and gone. The body: burned. Her beliefs: gone. Her various emotional states: evaporated. What remained was more like a universal love, with just enough of a twist of flavor to make it unique.

If you shine light through a prism, it will make a pattern of color on your desk. The light is coming from the sun, but it is refracted through the prism. It is sunlight that is reaching your desk, but now it has been given a tint of color because of the refraction.

In that same moment I also recognized that with the death of the mother also came the death of the son. I was no longer experiencing my mother, or indeed anyone’s mother, but just a unique flavor of love. Equally, I was experiencing this flavor not as someone son, but also as non-localized presence, mysterious and defying precise definition.

I have been lucky. Relative to most of the world, I had a benign and loving connection with both of my parents. I have not been particularly traumatized by my early life. I am acutely aware, however, that this is not everyone’s situation. Many people I know have suffered some form of emotional abuse, abuse of power, or even sexual abuse in their life, or have suffered simply from having rigid ideologies thrust upon them by their family of origin.

Whatever your story of your origin, the situation is always the same at the moment of death.  Through this experience of remaining present immediately after the death of my mother, I believe that I now understand a little more about what evaporates completely at the time of death, and what can still be accessed as a living and eternal presence.

When the heart stops beating, clearly all of the possibilities of a physical experience are also gone. The smell of the person, the color of their eyes and the texture of the skin, the sound of the voice and the language that they spoke: everyone knows that all of this dies with the body.

There are many other characteristics of a human being that are activated by the body, and also dependent upon the functioning of the body. Primary among these would be the expression of emotion. Anger, fear, frustration, excitement: these are all clearly influenced by the accumulation of excessive energy in certain organs, by physical sickness or toxicity.

All the way at the other end of the spectrum, we know that with the death of the physical body, life itself does not die. Love does not die. The sky does not die. And that mysterious creative presence we refer to as “the divine,” also does not die.

Somewhere in the middle, between the clear boundaries of the body and the personality, and the unboundedness of this eternal love, is the mysterious presence that is both universal and unique.

I know already that this experience of the death of my mother is going to deeply impact my work with patients.  So much of the world of healthcare is influenced by our collective fear of death, which is in turn fueled by our unwillingness to experience or contemplate death. As soon as we have just the smallest taste, as I did, of something that does not die, we realize that the death of the body is not a failure of the medical system, but a transition which it is, in part, responsible to midwife gracefully.

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