“If we don’t go to heaven when we die, then where
do we go? I had to know.” —Marla Greenway
By Cat Saunders
They say you never forget your first lover. I wonder: Could the same thing be true about death? Do you remember the first time death touched your life?
While working on this group of five interviews, I fantasized about the power of storytelling. Storytelling has such a graceful way of normalizing things. Could it help people feel safer with death?
I can see people sitting around together, relaxing, when one person turns to another and says, “Will you tell me about your first time?”
The sexual innuendo in that question is bound to elicit attention. After pausing a moment for effect, the questioner can clarify the topic: “I mean, will you tell me about the first time death touched your life?”
Once you find a friend to join you for storytelling, I recommend that you practice your best listening skills with each other. Unfortunately, many people don’t actually listen when someone else is talking.
They split their attention with other tasks, interrupt the speaker with endless comments, or “swipe the focus” by launching into a story of their own when the speaker pauses to take a breath. Be sure that you and your friend truly receive each other’s stories with full attention.
For now, I’d like to share some stories from my own circle of close friends. The first is from Marla Greenway, whose childhood story inspired this article. Next comes a story from David Young, who lost his mother when he was an infant.
Third, Leslie Heizer speaks candidly about her difficult introduction to death. Next, Rishi (not his real name) tells an incredible story about a friend’s suicide when they were both monks. Finally, one of my favorite stories comes from my partner, John Giovine, whose father died suddenly when John was a toddler.
These are tender stories, spoken from the heart. May they inspire you to honor your own stories about death.
My mother is an atheist. She thought it wiser to let me grow up without religion. Instead, she educated me about the scientific truths of death — that it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but part of the grand cycle of life.
When I was four, I remember sitting in the bathtub, thinking about what my friends had told me about death. They said that when we die, we go to heaven. I was afraid to tell my mom about this, but I was in a quandary. If we don’t go to heaven when we die, then where do we go? I had to know.
My fear escalated into panic, and I started sobbing and screaming. Mom came into the bathroom, and there I was, hysterical, mumbling watery fears about what would happen to me if I didn’t believe in God.
We had a long talk about death and religion. I’ll never forget it. I can’t say she calmed my fears, but she told me I could believe in God if I wanted to. Then she told me what she’d learned about death and religion from her work as an anthropologist.
She talked about Western and Eastern religions, Buddhism, paganism, African and Native American religions; you name it. The bath water was icy cold by the time she finished.
“This is what all these different people believe,” she said. “Now you choose what you want to believe.”
It’s been almost thirty years since we had that talk, and I still haven’t decided what to believe. But it gave me the impetus to look at death and religion with true, objective curiosity.
The first time death touched my life, it touched me very deeply. My mom died when I was twenty months old. She had been diagnosed with cancer shortly before I was conceived. I was told later that she got sicker faster because she was pregnant. I was also told that she wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, because her greatest wish — in sickness and in health — was to have a child.
My father reminded me of this when we spoke today, on Mother’s Day. The reason we were talking is that he’s having triple bypass surgery tomorrow, and he felt a very strong need to connect. Mortality issues were definitely on his mind. I encouraged him to talk about it.
I was especially moved when he told me how he learned of his own father’s death. He started crying when he told the story. He was eight when his mother came home from the hospital, where his father had died. She said, “No more Daddy for you!” That still stings him to this day.
Although there aren’t any single incidents about my mother that sting me that way, I really feel the loss of a maternal bond, as young as I was. No amount of therapy will ever take away that pain, and that’s okay, because it has made me very, very sensitive. It’s a part of me that I have come to love.
The first thing that got to me about death happened when I was about seven. I was at a friend’s house, and she had that prayer on her wall, “Now I lay me down to sleep,” which has the line, “…if I should die before I wake.”
In my memory, that was the moment I developed an intense fear of dying in my sleep. Every night, I tried to get my mother to promise me that I wouldn’t die in my sleep, and every night, my mother refused to reassure me. She’d say, “Well, there’s no guarantee.”
Finally, she took me to the pediatrician, because I developed insomnia. Later, she gave me Dramamine. She said, “This will make you sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Essentially, she had reassured me. That night, I fell asleep. The next morning, she said, “That wasn’t really anything to make you sleep. Now we know it’s only in your mind, so I don’t want to hear any more about it.”
What a disgusting thing to do to a kid!
Around that same time, my goldfish popped its eyeball on the castle in the aquarium. It started swimming sideways, then it died. My mother just said we’d have to flush it down the toilet. There was no emotional support.
Then my hamster ate the chew-stick, and its intestines came out of its rear end. I wanted to take it to the vet, but my mother said, “We can’t take a hamster to the vet,” so it bled to death.
These stories must sound pretty depressing! It took me years of hard work to turn my fear of death into curiosity and awe.
The first time I had a significant death experience was in 1980, when I was 33. I had a close friend who committed suicide when we were monks together at the Vedic monastery in Vancouver, B.C.
Das (not his real name) owned an old car. As monks, we didn’t drive around much, but one day we were coming back from a speaking engagement. We stopped at an automotive supply, because Das wanted to buy a length of radiator hose. Nothing seemed peculiar about it. Das was upbeat, and we just thought he was going to do some repairs on his car.
Later, when we got back, I went to bed and had a dream in which Das came to me in the form of a ghost. He looked very anxious and fearful, and he said, “It didn’t work! It didn’t work!”
I woke up and looked around, then went back to sleep. Das appeared again in my dream, and again he said, “It didn’t work!”
The next morning, I got up around four o’clock, as is customary at the Temple. About six, somebody came rushing in, saying that Das had committed suicide during the night.
He had parked his car in front of the Temple with the hose hooked up from the exhaust. Evidently, he thought he was going to get liberated, because he had sacred pictures, flower garlands, and other Temple items around him in the car.
Philosophically, he should never have thought that suicide would bring him liberation. That was never taught in any scripture we’d read. But Das didn’t tell anyone about his plan, or we would have talked him out of it.
By the time I got out to the car, a crowd of people had gathered. There he was, dead, leaning against the window. Because I was his closest friend, the coroner asked me to identify the body. He was stiff like a tree limb. They put him in an ambulance and took him away. His family was contacted, and they requested cremation.
Later that year, I went to India, and I took his ashes. After chanting various mantras, I deposited his ashes in the Ganges River, which is said to deliver the soul from the limbo state into its next incarnation, if it had gotten stuck in a ghost body.
That’s what I did for my friend. It was a difficult emotional passage for me.
My first experience with death came when my father dropped dead of a heart attack at home, in 1959, when I was not quite three. Even today, the little mantra that I carry with me is that death was one of my first introductions to life.
Since childhood, I’ve had a recurring dream throughout my life. It is always the exact same dream.
In the dream, I’m in our family room where I grew up in Olympia. I’m sitting on the knee of our neighbor from across the street, and I’m facing the door, which is open. It’s kind of dark, with back lighting. Through the door come two large skeleton hands toward me.
Even as a child, I remember this dream as being kind of scary, but not upsetting. It was almost reassuring, with a sense of calm about it. The skeleton hands weren’t menacing. Somehow I knew they were my father’s spirit extending to greet me.
When my father died, my older brothers and I didn’t go to his funeral, because my maternal grandmother wouldn’t allow it. I think that was an unconscionable act on her part. Although I knew where my father was buried, something was missing, because I didn’t get to complete with his body.
I used to look up at telephone poles and see the transformers, those black, cylindrical boxes. I thought that was where they put dead people. From my perspective, the transformers were oblong and rectangular, like caskets.
There was a transformer box on the telephone pole at the far end of our yard, and I could see it from my bedroom window. I used to relate to my father as being in that transformer. It gave me a sense of ease to feel that he was nearby.
This article is adapted from a series on death originally published by The New Times (1998-99) and updated in April 2017.
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).