Death, Afterlife, I Have Questions!
By Deborah Blackwell
What’s the greatest mystery in life? Death. Except for my friend Addie who, in the middle of our catch-up conversation the other day, said, “Oh, I meant to tell you, I died but survived. Life lately has been pretty interesting.”
Wait. What? She was talking a mile a minute and just squeezed that in. She rattled off details about how a few months ago she’d been on a casual walk, slipped, rolled down a hill, hit her head on bumpy pavement, and stopped breathing. I listened in shock.
“It was the most incredible thing,” she said. “I was standing there with my dead relatives, talking with them without using words, watching the whole scene — my panicked family, EMTs working on my body, everyone was so upset — and I can’t even describe how I felt. While all that chaos was happening, I felt the most peaceful, loving, amazing feeling, like nothing I have ever experienced. And it wasn’t a passing feeling, it was the feeling. The only feeling. Like pure bliss. Eternal love. Completely unobstructed joy.”
“Then what?!” I said. I had a zillion questions running through my mind — like, did you go through that tunnel people talk about? Was there some amazing light? Were you scared? Did you feel like yourself? Were you floating? Flying? But I couldn’t even put them into words. So I asked her how she decided to come back into her body.
“That part I don’t know. I woke up in the ICU six days later,” she said. “Lights, doctors, people hovering over me. Bags, tubes, wires, stickers, beeping, people talking, it was all a blur.”
I was speechless. I’d read about “crossing over and coming back” experiences, but never knew anyone who did it.
Then Addie said this: “I can tell you one thing, I’m not afraid of dying.” And she went back to talking about her regular life as if nothing astonishing had happened.
But something had. She’d died. What do I do with this information? Just hope what she said is true. Because if it is, that offers a glimpse into something life-changing I really can’t control.
When I was a little girl, my younger sister died. I was too small to remember, but it must have deeply imprinted in my consciousness because I carry this unidentifiable black hole inside that I think is a fear of death. It’s a curiosity, an arms-length fascination that makes me feel wiggly and uncomfortable when I think about it. My parents never talked about my sister and death was a taboo subject. It is even today. And if I try to bring it up, I’m shut down like a slammed door. But I have so many questions.
Does it feel like a dream? Does it hurt? Will I be sad? What about regrets? What if I’m alone? Who will help me cross over? Can I come back? Is life actually scarier than death?
Where is my sister now? Where are they all now — all those who have died? I make up stories about my sister, like she is my guardian angel and hanging around in the ethers with my deceased relatives. I honor her birthday and her death-day, and I even wrote a novel from her celestial perspective.
I have always believed in the divine mystique, the universe as a guiding, infinite life-force of unseeable energy in the nonphysical realm. Call it God, or whatever you want. But it’s not enough to bring me comfort with the whole “What happens next?” I don’t have a working crystal ball, just a one-dimensional perspective that doesn’t show me things I wish I could see. Tangible things. But even if I knew the future, would I be fine with it? Not sure. So, I grapple with feeling fine about the concept of death. About life. About everything unknown.
Last weekend, while we were helping move our son to college, we heard shocking, breaking news that one of our favorite jazz musicians, Joey DeFrancesco, had unexpectedly died just before a show. It was crushing. We had seen him many times, interacted with him, and most importantly, felt his spirit, his vibe, his heart, through his music, and it deeply touched our souls. But here he was, headed to a jazz festival, and boom. Just like that. Gone. It was like losing a friend.
Between Addie’s death and life, and Joey’s life and death, how can I get comfortable with getting up in the morning and getting on with my day knowing it could potentially be my last? I can’t plan for that. Instead, I try to plan whatever I can for a manageable existence. Most of us are consumed with the past and the future while trying to control the present. But Addie couldn’t control anything, even from the other side.
Life and death are conjoined. We’re born, we die. And while it’s easy to understand intellectually, nobody really wants to consider their demise. So how do we get comfortable with the fact we won’t stay alive forever? I don’t have the answers. I guess no one really does. But I take some comfort from the enlightening conversation with my friend.
Her social media posts changed after her near-death. She is writing poetic, soulful things about the human spirit, and goodness, and radiance. About nature, and life, and wonder. Thanks to my very alive friend, I now see we never really die. We only change our form. And not only is that nothing to be afraid of, but she says it’s more than OK.
Mystery solved? Maybe. But for now, my last question is, how is Joey D?
Hanging with Joey DeFrancesco between sets at Scullers Jazz Club, Boston, 2021.
A few of my favorite words of wisdom from Addie
“I see a sparkle in each of your eyes. I've never noticed this so clearly, but you all have a sparkle. You can't sparkle so brightly without love. To all of you sparkling souls, my eyes sparkle for each and every one of you.”
“Today is the day. Tomorrow is the day too. Yesterday has closed, today is now open, and tomorrow is a story yet to be written. What a blessing today is for us all.”
“Loving myself as much as I love others could make me happier. What could make you happier? Be aware how precious each moment is and cherish them with all your heart.”