To my readers:
Lately, it seems that I have come across many people who are searching for an understanding of what happens after this physical life is over. Either their life has led them to care for someone in the last stages of this life, or they have just suffered a loss, and have inklings of an afterlife.
For me these question arrived very early, as my sister Alisa passed on at the age of 14. She was completely confident, having apparently been born clairvoyant, that she had work to do in other realms. Clairaudient would probably describe her better. When asked how she knew, Alisa would simply say that the angels told her.
Alisa was just 18 months older than I, but I was sure she knew everything. Her imaginary friend she called “Radio”, played along side us everywhere. She could hear and speak with Radio but neither of us could see him. I came to understand that Radio knew more than even Alisa did. At some point she didn’t want to talk about him anymore. In seventh grade, she was hospitalized with a brain tumor and came home after Christmas, to live out her short life in her bedroom next to mine.
Alisa was weakened and thin after the operation, and the blue cobalt marks on her bald head stood out in an other-worldly contrast to her alabaster white skin. It was as if she were becoming translucent. At first she could walk about, and she would come in to my bedroom and explain my dreams and nightmares to me. Once she made it downstairs in the middle of the night, where my father was fitfully sleeping, to comfort him with a “message from the angel”. As she dwindled, she struggled with physical pain at night. But still, in the morning she awoke with words of encouragement for all of us. I spent many hours by her bedside, listening to her speak quietly, with absolute certainty, about the angelic world that she was beginning to call home. As she passed, I knew it, and ran into her room, where she lay, utterly still, on her rumpled white bedsheets; frail, translucent, finally pain-free. Though she had explained a lot already, the unanswered questions filled the room like tears.
I was just turning 13. My Odyssey began. I needed to know where she really, really was; why she had to go; how it was possible to still feel her comfortingly near. What was this living, invisible world where Radio and her angel friends, and now, she too lived? As the spring arrived, I rode my bicycle to the nearest church; the one where the funeral had been held, even though we were not a church-going family. Reverend Kenseth sat down with me in the pews to try to answer my myriad questions. But it was not easy. His words meant very little to me. I joined his youth group, “The Pilgrim Fellowship”, where we were taken to witness the services of every church and synagog in the area. The Quaker service was closest to my idea of sacred. With my parents blessing, I started a weekly bicycle pilgrimage to the Friends Meeting, 13 miles away.
But nothing really got to the heart of the matter until I went to my family doctor in New York City. Dr. Franz Winkler saw completely through the questions I brought him. He spoke the same language as Alisa had spoken; about angels and the “Higher World”. He gave me some mantric verses to read and suggested I look through my mother’s library.
My mother had taught French in the Garden City Waldorf School, where Alisa and I, and my younger sister, Helen, had gone for many years. Her library was full of literature that had been given to her by the faculty, to help her understand her job. Titles like “Discussions with Teachers”, “Manifestations of Karma, volumes 1 through 7”, none of which meant anything to me. But one struck my eye; “Knowledge of Higher Worlds and Its Attainment”. I opened it to the words:
“There slumber in every human being faculties by means of which he can acquire for himself a knowledge of higher worlds. Mystics, Gnostics, Theosophists—all speak of a world of soul and spirit which for them is just as real as the world we see with our physical eyes and touch with our physical hands. At every moment the listener may say to himself: that, of which they speak, I too can learn, if I develop within myself certain powers which today still slumber within me. There remains only one question—how to set to work to develop such faculties.”
Here was someone who really knew something. I was 15, and this was going to be quite a journey.
Not too many weeks later, I found this clairvoyant‘s account of the journey of the soul after death. (You can read an excerpt of The Soul in The Soul World After Death, here.) Lengthy and detailed almost to a fault, it promised to satisfy my deep need to know. I swam through its density, buoyed by a sense of familiarity with the concepts. I was elated, struck with a feeling of completion and final comfort. It spoke of letting go of the bonds that tie us to the physical body. It spoke of the soul’s release from the habits and inclinations that have no where to go when the body can no longer carry them. It made me realize that Alisa had done a lot of the work of passing on and letting go while she was still here.
But she was still here for a while. She stood quietly in the background as a guiding light and helped me grow into my early twenties.
As I have grown through many deaths of people I have know intimately throughout my life, I have learned to see the latter parts of their lives as ascending paths to the higher worlds. The ascension of the essential and eternal, contrasted greatly with the ragged return of the spent physical being to the natural world. The senility of my grandmother, the sudden death of my first child, the slow decline of my father, the physical disintegration of my mother, the rapid decline of my closest aunt, the translucent passage of my childhood nurse and her saintly husband, all tell different stories. But the theme which runs through each of them is that of ascension, of the crucial but ephemeral nature of the physical, and of the unstoppable triumph of each of their spirits.
Letting go of the emphasis on the material world is something we can do consciously throughout our lives, or dramatically after death. Some of us have a period of struggle that seems inhumane, though it is probably better to get the necessary job done here than in a disembodied state. By experiencing the love, gleaning the wisdom and developing the strength that we can only truly experience through this embodied life, we can hope to enter into the next with little fanfare . Every one of these souls went through a process of letting go and soaring onwards.
Have courage. It was never meant to be easy.