“Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” – C. S. Lewis
When I was a teenager growing up in West Yellowstone, Montana, I heard of the death of two snowmobilers caught in an avalanche. I could see from my home the mountain where it happened. It was not a very uncommon event; every winter people died on their snow machines in one way or another. But for some reason the news haunted me; maybe because the winters in Yellowstone were long and dark, and my mood would often match the landscape. A day after hearing the news, I was napping in a half-asleep, half-awake state when a vision of the men’s death came to mind. I saw and felt the men tumbling in the chaos of hundreds of tons of snow, and then silence and suffocation—the last gasping breaths of being buried alive. I woke suddenly, startled with the realization that someday, somehow, I would take my last breath on earth.
From this and other experiences, I sought from an early age to better understand death and the afterlife. Death may be, as the poet Wallace Stevens says, the mother of beauty. For me it has also been the mother of spirituality. I know some think this is backwards—that true spirituality is born of a love of God or love of one’s neighbor. Death and what lay beyond, they argue, is a distraction from the “here and now” where life is truly lived. There’s much truth to all that, of course.
But the mystery of death looms over every moment. This fact is haunting, beautiful, horrifying, and hopeful all at the same time. Shakespeare called death the undiscovered country from which no traveler returns. Yet, with modern medicine, an increasing number of people do return after experiencing clinical death. They return with stories of light and love and reunion with deceased family members. A small minority even have hellish experiences.
People who have these experiences are changed in profound ways. They often have difficulty re-adjusting to normal life. The things of this world—money, ambition, fame, status—lose their appeal. Instead, they become interested in learning and improving their relationships. They become highly sensitive to violence and conflict—no longer able to even watch movies they once enjoyed.
I have read literally hundreds, if not thousands, of these experiences. Yes, like any event, the stories are filtered through the worldview of the experiencers, but I believe they are essentially true. I believe these people have caught a glimpse of something real, something that makes this life seem like a dream by comparison.
Too often we make every effort to sanitize death or pretend it won’t happen, but NDEs remind us of the fragility of life—the car accident, the sudden heart attack, the drowning at the local pool, the slow deterioration caused by chronic disease. Yet they also teach that death is not the end, nor is it an escape from the self. We continue to make choices and learn from those choices beyond the grave. We take ourselves with us, so it’s worth paying attention to what kind of self we cultivate in this life.
A few years ago I saw, in my mind’s eye, a soul wandering in the afterlife. It was a lost soul, essentially good and reaching out for something higher, but desperately clinging to former fears and attachments. I wasn’t sure who he was or where he was going or what was driving him, but I wanted to find out. Writing Hearts of the Fathers was largely a process of following this man on his journey and discovering what was in his heart—what was giving him hope and what was preventing him from rising into the light. I do not presume with this little novel to offer final answers to the mystery of what lay beyond death. This book represents a spiritual journey, an exploration of possibilities, not a final destination. It is my hope and prayer that readers enjoy this journey and maybe make a few discoveries along the way.
Sheldon Lawrence is an award winning essayist and author of the recent novel “Hearts of the Fathers: A story of Heaven, Hell, and the hope of new life after life,” available here.