Life After Death

*Talk given by R. Hayes at the Unitarian Church of Pittsfield, MA 10/29/06

In a few days we'll be celebrating Halloween- a holiday in which many people,
whether they know it or not, are contemplating life after death.
It's a day when people loved to be scared or scare others.

The classic Halloween costume is the little kid in a sheet.
Ghosts are the stars of Halloween! But what are ghosts really?
They're the spirits of the departed.
And someday the departed will be you!

There's just no way around it-each of us is destined for death.
Let me ask the question, can you imagine this world without you in it?
What will the world do without you? What will life be like after you are gone??

And what happens for the ones left behind: your friends? Family? loved ones?? What about all the people you bumped up against during your life?
What will they remember of you?
What will your having been here on earth, mean?
There are many kinds of ghosts one can leave behind to haunt this world.

And there are acts that leave a trail-like when you see a bright flash and
your eye holds that image for awhile after the flash is gone.
There are things people do that leave that kind of after-glow in this world,
because they remain etched in the heart.

Mr. Beardslee is someone who had such an effect on me.
When I was in my 20's my wife suddenly developed a mysterious illness.
At the time we had 2 small children. This illness had a quick onset where she spiked a very high fever, vomited almost constantly and paralysis set in from her neck down. Truthfully I thought she was going to die so I'd rushed her to the
emergency room where they saw the seriousness of the situation and admitted

After I'd seen that she was in her room I left and went out to the parking lot -
I needed to get home to the children who were being watched by my mother-in-law.

As I walked toward our car I saw a familiar figure running toward me. It was
Bill Beardslee-a friend of my parents. I'd known him all my life-but from a
distance-he was their friend. But I had always liked him- he was a nice, boisterous guy -the kind of guy you loved to have at a party.

Why was he here at the hospital? My fist thought was that something must have
happened to someone in his family-maybe his wife.
He rushed up to me and said: “I heard what happened. What can I do to help?”

In that moment I realized he'd dropped whatever he'd been doing and had come to help. I was a bit shocked...almost embarrassed. I thanked him and told him that my wife had been admitted and hopefully things would be okay. I felt awkward-I wasn't really quite sure of what else to say, so I said I had to get home to the kids.

As I pulled away I saw him walking- slowly now-toward the hospital.
I don't think I was able to realize what his presence there meant at that time.
Like I said, I felt embarrassed-as if I'd imposed on this man-actually I think
I was embarrassed-because I didn't know how to accept help.

The look of concern and caring on his face has stayed with me-I can still see it
clearly today. It was only years later that I understood the gift that he'd been willing to give me that day.

He `d shown up-really shown up-been willing to be present-no strings attached-he was there and willing to be there with me no matter what happened-no matter how painful-no matter how awkward.

Fortunately, with time, my wife did recover, though the mystery illness remained
a mystery. A few years later I learned that Mr. Beardslee had cancer and was not expected to survive. After months in the hospital he had come home to die in a place he loved. I’m sorry to say that I never went to visit him-not once.
Oh, I planned to go, but it was always next week that I was going to make it
over there. But Mr. Beardslee finally ran out of weeks.

I felt bad after he died, certainly a bit guilty. But as the years flew by other things in my life took center stage, and I pushed those feelings away. I more or less
forgot about it. It was just one more of the regrets of my life.

But then, one night a few years ago, totally out of the blue, the memory of
Mr.Beardslee and what had happened that day came back to me. I saw it all in
my mind's eye, as if I were watching a movie. And for the first time I understood what he had offered me, what he had been willing to give me. And when
the weight of that hit me, I began to cry.

A friend of mine sent me this quote the other day, just as I was working on this
talk: “The purpose of life is to find one's gift. The meaning of life is to give it.”

I may have missed the opportunity to thank Bill Beardslee while he was still
here in this world. And truthfully, even if I had visited him I'm not sure I
was ready yet to understand what he had given me.
But still it would have been nice to say thanks.

So, Thank you Mr. Beardslee.

As most of you know, today I am a Hospice Chaplain-but before becoming a
chaplain I was a hospice volunteer for 9 years. Initially, when I'd volunteered, I was asked why I wanted to do this kind of work. I believed it was because I'd seen how much Hospice had helped a good friend of mine during his struggle with cancer and I wanted to repay that. I'd also lost my younger brother to cancer when we were kids, so death had been a part of my life early on and I wanted to help people through it. And those things are true.

But when I go and sit with a dying patient, or meet with a grieving widow, it's
Mr. Beardslee who is my role model. He's the guy I want to emulate.
I want to be willing to be there; willing to not have the answers, just the compassion and caring.

Sitting with death is not easy because in the face of it we know we are
powerless over it. Who wants to feel that?

So we deny, avoid, resist; we tell our self stories, and while we do all that, the
opportunity that death offers us is missed. And if it's missed enough,
at some point it becomes too late.

I had a hospice patient who I saw for 5 months. He knew he was dying, but
remarkably he still had a good deal of energy and was able to get around pretty
well. He also expressed a lot of gratitude for his life. On one of my first
visits he & his wife had both made a point of telling me that they'd had a good
life together-made lots of friends and enjoyed themselves thoroughly. During the
months that I visited I got the chance to see Mike as he spoke to other people
when they stopped by to say hello. And I have to tell you, he got lots of

He made a point of telling each one of them that he appreciated them and what
they had meant to him. In his last few weeks I heard him thanking the aides and
nurses. He freely told people that he loved them. This man and his family fully
embraced the opportunity that death had given them.

Okay, so I've talked about the opportunity that death presents to us here in
this world, but what happens at the time of death and afterward?

I have a friend, Tom, who told me that he had almost drowned when he was ten. He described to me what he'd experienced. As he began to sink he felt
himself leave his body. He was surrounded in a bright light and felt himself
traveling up above the water. He could see his body below. He felt no fear at
all, just peace. Then he saw a group of people, one of whom he recognized as
his grandmother who had died 2 years earlier. She spoke to him and told him it
wasn't his time yet and that he had to go back. Next thing he knew he was in
his body as they were fishing him out of the water.

During the last 25 years there has been a great deal of research into what has
come to be known as the Near Death Experience, and there are thousands of
documented cases of people who have died and been revived-sometimes after
prolonged periods where there has been no heart beat or brain activity. And
through most of them there is a recurring theme: The person is told that it's
not their time-that they have something to do-they must come back.

These people have been given a second chance.
But You don't need to have a near death experience to be given a 2nd chance.
Each day you're alive you're given that chance.

What if we didn't let death scare us? What if we looked it squarely in the eye; accepted that, in fact, it will be here for us and for everyone we love someday.

Would you change some of your priorities?
What would you tell a loved one that you haven't told them?
What are some of the second chances you'd like to have?
Have Them!!! They're yours for the taking! Now is the time

Death's gift to us all is preciousness: the awareness of how precious this particular moment is.

Mr. Beardslee gave me his gift. I didn't recognize or understand it at the time.
That's the way life often is, we don't see what is right in front of us.
It took me years before I was able to unwrap that gift.
I got a second chance and I didn't have to die and come back in order for it to
happen! And just think! I get to share his gift with new people all the time
because his gift is my gift now.