At the age of four, I encountered death for the first time when my maternal grandmother suddenly disappeared from my life. Faced with the absence of a person who had been a deep source of love and nurturance, I probingly questioned all the adults around me as to her whereabouts. In response to my innocent, yet persistent inquiries, I was told that “Bubby” had died and gone to Heaven. However, no one ever explained to me exactly why she died, or why she left without even a goodbye.
As a result of that early experience, the remaining years of my childhood were spent looking towards the heavens. Night after night I prayed to God for “Bubby” Mina’s peace, and found myself communicating with the spirit of a dead grandmother who perpetually radiated love and protection. Although I did not know it then, at a very early age seeds were planted that would inspire and motivate my work as a bereavement counselor and death educator…
Throughout the years of late adolescence and early adulthood, death was a frequent visitor in my world. Growing up in the 1960′s, when my contemporaries were attracted to drugs and fast cars, I lived through the deaths of all-too-many young people. The highway or the hospital intensive care unit claimed the lives of several friends and family members I loved deeply.
In my early twenties death impacted upon my life in an irreversible way, when two very close friends died suddenly – one in a car accident, the other from a massive brain hemorrhage. I discovered the stark reality that someone I loved could be alive one day, and dead the next. One cold winter’s day in 1973, my life was changed forever as I stood witness while the body of a beloved friend, a young man of twenty-two was lowered into the frozen earth. With an aching, numb heart, I found myself wondering, as people often do: what happened to the life force once animating this body? Was this the end? Was there a soul that somehow lived on? Was there any ultimate meaning to life and death? This ordeal catalyzed a profound and ongoing process of wrestling with questions about death, immortality and post-mortem survival, a process which has continued to this day.
Encounters with death have led me into the depths of spiritual despair and personal disintegration. And yet, out of the alienation, suffering and grief, I have discovered an invisible thread of spiritual purpose and destiny pervading human life itself. From the meaninglessness of death, I learned to find meaning, purpose and faith in my own life. Seeing the obvious temporality of the human condition, and yet feeling the infinite, transcendent nature of love between people, I have come to see death as but an expression of the unfolding of the divine on the plane of human existence. Death can be cruel and painful; for many it often is. Yet, in my own life, death has been a spiritual teacher, a source of much inspiration, and a catalyst for genuine spiritual growth.
From Jewish Views of the Afterlife by Simcha Paull Raphael, pp. 1-2