The specter of tens of thousands dying without the solace of being surrounded by loved ones has loomed over the current pandemic. Poignant images of faces and palms pressed against the windows of nursing homes in the US. Goodbyes over phones and facetime. Scattered kin keeping vigil in far flung places without each other for comfort. These stories snag the heart and trip the mind as we struggle to imagine lives slipping away in the cold sterility of a hospital setting.
And yet many who work with the dying know that the transition we call death is a malleable border teeming with life. It is rarely spoken of publicly. Death may be universal but each passing feels intensely private. It belongs to those closest to the person who has departed. Every detail of those last weeks, days, hours, the decisions, confusions, tensions, emotions, even the very atmosphere is saturated with meaning. The time constitutes our final experience of a person and our memories assume a resonant quality. Families may diverge in their responses and recollections. But it is rare that anyone close to the event will have been left untouched. Death pries open the heart in a very particular way. One is acutely aware of having been witness to an elemental event. And it can be unnerving to risk others’ incomprehension or embarrassment at the intensity of our feelings. Consequently, although it was precisely death’s universality that made it a primordial experience, it can retreat once again into the realm of the private.
Not so for those who have worked with the dying. To us the dialectic of the individual and the universal in death is an evident truth regularly witnessed. Death may be social but it is also nature expressing itself. Those in end of life care witness its rhythms and its unspoken dimensions. In context of a pandemic which has isolated death in institutions and shattered even the possibility of a partially shared process, it feels important to speak to some of what is rarely named in case it might bring comfort to the bereaved. What I say will not be news to many in living/dying movements across the world. Others may consider it to be patently absurd. I invite such readers to contemplate what I say as a thought experiment.
No one dies alone. Everyone is helped with their transition. Those who have known they are terminally ill may have prepared themselves. But they too are accompanied. Dying is not a singular event but a process. As this process unfolds the dying person’s consciousness gradually begins to expand beyond the frames of human cognition. The subjective experience of time slows down so as to facilitate it. The pace is determined by an individual’s willingness and readiness. If needed the integration of the transition may continue after it has occurred. Such is the compassion of the universe.
Where the death is sudden and unexpected the process may even be initiated after the person has crossed over. Those assisting are spirit kin that the individual recognizes as consciousness expands beyond the human. No one is coerced. While from an earthly perspective the death may not have been ‘chosen’ by the earthly self, its broader context is grasped once the transition occurs. This is not to suggest that all deaths are just. Humans are endowed with free will, a capacity which as we know is used to heal as well as to harm, to create and as well as to destroy. Deaths can be unwarranted and untimely, the consequence of neglect, violence, injustice. Mourning such deaths is not just a transpersonal but a crossborder phenomenon. Violation is violation regardless of the realm.
What I have stated here challenges religious belief and as well rationality as currently conceived. I cannot and will not aim to convince. Is assertion then all I can offer? Yes and no. Death is commonly thought to be scary. But many who have been close to it have also been privy to the atmosphere of peace that can prevail around the person in their last days and hours. In an inversion of expectations, the energy in the patient’s room can contrast sharply with the tumult in the waiting room in which death as idea prevails over dying as process. The rise and fall of shallow breaths, the beeping sounds of monitors, the unconscious person, physical restlessness, gasping for breath, crying out in pain: living pared to bare essentials brings one sharply into the present. The dying person and the one keeping vigil are in the same temporal zone. The quality of silence amidst the uncertainty and grief can be palpable, supportive, hard to fathom.
If death led only to the silence of the grave we would be hard put to explain visitations from the dead to those left behind, experiences that have usually brought assurance and comfort to the living. One has not heard of husbands returning to finish a quarrel or of creditors threatening debtors over money owed. Further, those who have returned to life after near-death experiences have spoken in remarkably consistent ways about having been enveloped in indescribable love and of having encountered beings who strive to guide humans but can only do so if we cooperate. Then there are mediums who bring messages from the beyond by request. Those who communicate even while sounding like their earthly selves may speak with greater wisdom than they evinced when they were in a body suggesting that their human incarnation was only a partial iteration of who they are.
These are not arguments. They are at best partial clues. Perhaps my perspective will speak only to those already inclined to find it intelligible. But if my words serve to ease even a little bit of the pain over a family member or friend having died alone, the risk of sharing would have been worthwhile. And given the scale of deaths, I will settle for a sliver of curiosity about what I have described. For it may prompt reflection on energies or presences that might have been sensed but dismissed as improbable; or inexplicable moments when acceptance of the situation became possible and calm descended even if temporarily. The knowledge that beings are supported on the other side may also serve to soothe painful deaths in which much remained unresolved. It may lead some to undertake rituals of mourning with a little more trust that those who have departed may also be renewed by the celebration of their lives.
Many boundaries have been pushed and redrawn to enable a fuller accounting of the human experience. That supposedly separating life and death, the human and spirit realms, has not been one of them. Could it be an idea whose time has come?
 There is a vast literature of near-death experiences. Notable among them are Betty J. Eadie, Embraced by the Light, New York: Bantam Books, 1992 & Eban Alexander, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.
Oakland, California, USA
Lata Mani, Ph.D., is a cultural critic, contemplative writer and filmmaker. She is the author of The Integral Nature of Things: Critical Reflections on the Present (Routledge, 2013), Interleaves: Ruminations on Illness and Spiritual Life (Yoda, 2011), Sacred Secular: Contemplative Cultural Critique, (Routledge, 2009) and Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India (University of California Press, 1989). Her articles have appeared in Feminist Review, Economy and Society, Cultural Critique, Seminar and Economic and Political Weekly. Her most recent film The Poetics of Fragility (with Nicolás Grandi) interweaves story, poetry and critical inquiry to reclaim fragility as intrinsic to nature and human existence, not merely something to be bemoaned or overcome. The film features among others, Angela Davis, Cherrie Moraga, Nora Cortinãs (a founder of the Argentinian Mothers of the Disappeared). The Poetics of Fragility has been made open access in context of the COVID19 pandemic.