Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross speculated in her studies of terminally ill patients that the dying go through five distinct stages of grief preceding their deaths – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Her studies produced a book titled “On Death and Dying” that brought the forbidden topic of terminal illness into the public discourse on end-of-life issues.
This resulted in the development of hospice care as a means to assist patients in their final days to die with dignity.
Kübler-Ross moved to Arizona in the mid-1990s after a series of strokes left her partially paralyzed.
When she died in 2004 at age 78, her son observed, “For her, death wasn’t something to fear. It was like a graduation.”
She lived ready for death. In a 2002 interview with The Arizona Republic, she said she was ready to die, quipping that God was a procrastinator.
In her later days she wrote, “Death is simply a shedding of the physical body like the butterfly shedding its cocoon. It is a transition to a higher state of consciousness where you continue to perceive, to understand, to laugh and to be able to grow.”
Her former research assistant, Dennis Klass, said, “That soft-spoken, iron-willed, sometimes crazy, interpersonal, little woman went around the world and changed the way people thought about themselves and their families and how they thought about life and death.”
Awaiting death was not such a challenge for her, her son reported. “Her only problem with facing death was patience. She was looking forward to dancing with the stars.”
What’s just around the corner? Mostly we don’t know.
Not even the Bible gives us much to work on other than a few mysteries it doesn’t know how to describe. Paul’s statement about seeing “through a glass dimly” isn’t much of a hint (see 1 Corinthians 13:12).
As a pastor, I’ve come to see that everything in the Bible about heaven or hell is necessarily metaphorical and no one knows much more than that in what to surmise.
In one of the last few episodes of the TV series, “The West Wing,” First Lady Abbey Bartlett helped President Jed Bartlett get dressed by stooping to help him pull up his pants.
He had grown steadily more disabled from multiple sclerosis and he simply couldn’t pull up his own pants.
As she bent down before him to slip each foot down a pants leg, he whispered: “How body from spirit does slowly unwind until we are pure spirit at the end.”
“So you’re going to quote poetry to me at this moment?” she said back to him.
“Yes,” he replied with a slight smile.
“Is this what it means when we said ‘for better or worse’?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said to her.
Religion and theology do not represent answers as much as they stand at the border between time and eternity and bear witness with metaphors, stories and poetry of that which we can say no more.
In his old age, Einstein was asked what he thought about life after death. He remarked that he did not know any more than anyone else might know, but it was enough to have gotten a glimpse.
What is ahead is too great to imagine, certainly too much for words. Perhaps it’s enough for any of us to simply get a glimpse.
Keith Herron is pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., and a member of the board of directors for the Baptist Center for Ethics. His sermons appear on EthicsDaily.com. A version of this article first appeared on Life Turnings and is used with permission.
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).