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Posted: May 06, 2005

Spiritual Caregiving

Facing the Other Side

(Editor's Note: Our beliefs about the afterlife shape us here and now. Do you know what you believe?)

Jennifer, only 11 years old, was about to die of cancer, and I came to the hospital at her family's request. There was clearly something she wanted to say and couldn't.

"What's it going to be like?" she asked me eventually.


"No. Heaven." She paused uncomfortably. "Or the other place."

"Ahhh," I said. "Jennifer, why don't you tell me what you think is going to happen. Maybe we can figure this out together."

She jumped right in, clearly wanting to talk. "There are angels waiting for me to die. I saw that on TV. The angel of death is waiting to take me away. And if I've been good, I get to go to heaven, where God is. I guess I'll be an angel there, too. Maybe they'll let me see my grandmother and my dog who died last year. I'm not sure. The program didn't say. But if I'm bad, I'll go to the other place and it's pretty awful. There's a lot of fire there and horrible things happen to you. I think you get burned up over and over again until some ugly creatures come to find you and take your body away."

"Who told you that, Jennifer?" I asked.

"I think I saw it in a movie. But everyone knows about that other place, don't they? It's for when you're bad." She paused, then whispered, "I think I got cancer because I'm bad. So I guess that means I have to go to hell."

I am used to beliefs like Jennifer's. I have taught world religions and afterlife beliefs at various universities. I have also sat with more than 200 people who were at the point of death. I find that when people are days or hours away from making the transition from life into death, they very much want to know what will happen to them -- what they will face on the other side.

To my students, I can explain who believes what, and why. I can explain that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all proclaim that we are judged at the end of our lives and are sent to heaven, or in the case of Christianity and Islam, possibly to hell. We get one shot and that is it. Both Judaism and Islam proclaim that our deeds -- both good and bad -- are recorded in the Book of Life, and at the end of time, God judges each of us accordingly. Christianity teaches that deeds alone will never get us into heaven, but that Jesus Christ must intervene to save us from hell.

The Eastern traditions, Hinduism and Buddhism, teach that we are caught up in samsara, the wheel of life, constantly working out our karma. At the end of this life, we shed our outer garments for new ones, always hoping to reach union with the divine or enlightenment. Many pagan practitioners also believe in reincarnation, perhaps that our energy is joined with others' and recycled in some way.

"So how can we know?" I'm always asked. We can't know. "Who's right and who's wrong?" It isn't a question of right and wrong here; it's a question of faith and belief.

My own experience with the dying has given me some insight. One is that our beliefs, examined or not, tend to be strongly held and are often powerful. As with Jennifer, our beliefs may have unintended consequences for our own lives or those we love. Personally, I believe that the afterlife, in some form or other, exists. I have kept vigil with Catholics and Protestants, Buddhists and Muslims, Jews and pagans, Mormons and Hindus, skeptics and angry nonbelievers. And when the time comes and they are faced with death, I see them experience a clear transition to some other state of being. They are aware of something waiting for them on the other side. As the body shuts down, the inner essence, the soul, if you will, moves onward.

Those Sticky Fires of Hell

Scriptural texts are filled with images of what awaits us after we die. However, religions, especially here in the West, create conditions for the reward of being with God in the afterlife. Heaven, for example, not only separates the good from the bad, it creates two categories: us and them. They, of course, go to hell.

Sam grew up a Baptist. "My church was real strong on heaven and hell," he told me. "The preacher used to scream at us from the pulpit. It scared me to death." He related the list of things that sent a person to hell. "Unfortunately, that's probably where I'm headed. I sure didn't make the choices they wanted me to make."

When I asked him what the criterion was for getting into heaven, he immediately replied, "You have to believe in what the church believes. I have a feeling they all think that heaven is going to be filled with good Baptists and no one else." Did he still believe that himself? Sam paused. "I want to say no, but I'm afraid they got to me too young."

Jenna was a young woman whose parents were from Pakistan. She no longer practiced Islam and worried that her soul was in danger. "Our religion teaches us that we must be faithful or we will suffer the fires of hell. I'm scared that because I've stopped being religious like my parents, I'll go to hell."

Nora, a baby boomer, grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, going through parochial schools in those pre-Vatican II days when the nuns were strict and graphic about what would happen if you stopped being a good Catholic girl. "Everyone said you have to be a practicing Catholic to go to heaven," she said. "Otherwise, your soul is eternally damned. I just don't believe that anymore -- it doesn't make sense to me. People are judged on their goodness, not whether they sit in a church pew or not."

Glimpses of Heaven

The Qur'an speaks of a garden of bliss, where the good will reside "on couches, encrusted with gold and precious stones, reclining on them, facing each other. Round about them will serve youths of perpetual freshness, with goblets, shining beakers, and cups filled out of clear-flowing fountains: No after-ache will they receive therefrom, nor will they suffer intoxication: And with fruits, any that they may desire, any that they may select; And the flesh of fowls, any that they may desire. And there will be Virgin Companions, with beautiful, big and lustrous eyes, like unto Pearls, well-guarded." (Sutra 56 Al-Waqui1a 15-24)

In the Christian Bible, the Book of Revelation talks about the new city of Jerusalem, coming down from heaven, "radiant like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal," the streets "pure as gold, transparent as glass." (Chapter 21, verses 10, 11, and 21) Pure Land Buddhism says that in heaven (the Pure Land), "heavenly music is played at all times; gold is spread on the ground; and six times each day and night it showers Mandarava blossoms." (Amida Kyo) In spite of scriptural images of golden streets and lustrous-eyed virgins, in my experience, what most people desire in heaven is simply being close to God, rest from life's struggles and pain, and being reunited with family. I find it interesting that most people assume that they will meet loved ones in the afterlife: "I know my mother will be there waiting," and "My dear husband has already appeared to me in dreams telling me he's coming for me." Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scriptures do not mention that families will be together in heaven, yet it is commonly believed that this will probably be the case.

One tradition, though, teaches specifically that families will be together in the afterlife. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, teaches of a place called the Spirit World. All souls were born in the Spirit World in what is known as the pre-existence, and will return there after death. And then when Judgment Day comes, we will be sent to one of the three degrees of heaven. Until those end times, families exist together in a wonderful and joyous place.

Heaven as a reward for martyrs, however, raises a difficult question. Virtually all religions hold a place of honor in paradise for those who die for the faith. This can be problematic, especially for those on the other side. We in the United States have now been the focus of a holy war. We question the idea that causing death in the name of God brings a place in heaven. We struggle with the concept that our enemy is eternally glorified for attacking and killing. Yet, throughout history, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have all honored their martyrs, regardless of the victims. 

Being Unsure

Judaism doesn't speak much of heaven; it focuses on this life and a person's legacy. Although there is a growing interest in rediscovering texts about the afterlife, most Jews I've spoken with are unsure what the tradition teaches.

Frieda was born in Europe, escaped the Holocaust, and raised her family in the United States. She was Jewish and had little contact with anyone outside the Jewish world. Now she was dying in the hospital and afraid of what was next.

"The rabbis never talk about the afterlife," she told me. "Olam ha-Ba, the world to come, yes, but that's different. That's when all of the world will be at peace. It has nothing to do with me dying, here, now."

I asked her what she thought would happen. She paused. "I don't know. Debby, my granddaughter, says our souls live on. I guess I want to believe that I don't just stop existing when I die. But I don't know, and that scares me."

Uncertainty, in my experience, adds to the anxiety at the time of death. Being told that you lived a good life and now it's time for it to come to an end is not always comforting. When I am present at a death where there are more questions than beliefs, I sense that the person wants an explanation of the unfolding event. 

Continuation of the Journey

For many religious and spiritual people, being connected with the divine makes us want to continue that relationship into eternity. "I have spent my life devoted to my spiritual search," says Marianne. "I know for certain that my soul will continue in one form or another." When I asked whether she believed she would achieve instant "understanding" when she died, she considered my question carefully. "I believe that many of my present human limitations will be lifted, yes. But I think that the journey will continue. It's going to be a process, even in the afterlife."

Of course, thinking of what happens after we die is hard and tearful, and many of us try to avoid it, hoping beyond hope that we won't be off guard when our time comes. But when we ignore death, we lose part of how we live. Virtually all religions teach that if we prepare for death now, there is hope and ease in our transition. That is certainly what I have seen.


Megory Anderson runs the nonprofit Sacred Dying Foundation in San Francisco and is the author of Sacred Dying: Creating Rituals for Embracing the End of Life (Prima Publishing, 2001). A former Anglican nun, she has been on staff in numerous churches and teaches religion at the University of California, Berkeley.

This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at Contact staff directly via email at

© 2005 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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