By Chelsea Odhner
I had the chance to fly out to Tucson, Arizona, to be with my grandpa, Frank Rose, during a few of his last days. On one afternoon, I sat by his side as we both gazed out at the majestic Catalina Mountains through two large glass sliding doors in his living room. He was still well enough to speak, but it was difficult and took effort.
He told me how he was leading one last spiritual growth group—an eight-week series consisting of seven tasks. In addition to coming up with the tasks, he was able, with the help of family who were giving him twenty-four-hour care, to lead the group virtually. Even after retiring from his career as a minister, he continued to embody ministry in every facet of his life, so I was delighted and not the least surprised to learn that the fountain of his spiritual teaching was still active even as his body’s life energy waned.
The spiritual growth group had begun meeting in August, and shortly thereafter, he decided to transition to hospice care. His doctors and hospice nurses estimated that he had six to eight weeks to live. Anticipating his approaching transition, he had chosen “end-of-life” as the theme for the group, but now he didn’t know if he was going to live to see the group’s final session.
Death comes in different forms. When I was ten years old, I was present for my mother’s death. She died from an aggressive brain tumor at the age of only forty-two. The tumor was in the left side of her brain, which houses our language processing capabilities. Not only did it leave her unable to speak, but it also left the whole right side of her body—her dominant side—paralyzed. For my mother, the process of dying took six months, from diagnosis to death. It was a traumatic time. Death can also come suddenly—for example, at the hands of accident, illness, or injury—and this abrupt loss is deeply traumatic in its own way.
My grandfather’s passing was different. It came at the end of a long life, as he had recently turned ninety-three. He had been diagnosed two years beforehand with pancytopenia, so he knew he would be facing a slow descent. His bone marrow would slowly turn off the faucet of blood cell production, and he would get weaker and weaker until he passed. His dying process certainly wasn’t void of discomfort, and it abounded in grief, but it was by and large painless. He had ample time and the mental acuity to adjust to the knowledge that he was dying, to reflect on his experience, and to say goodbye to many of his closest loved ones.
Sitting by his side, on my own journey to say goodbye to a loved one, he enumerated the seven tasks he had chosen for the series. Slowly, one by one, as his labored breath allowed him, my grandfather went through each task and its lesson from memory with me that afternoon, and now I relay these pieces of wisdom here.
Lesson #1: Making Choices at the End of Your Life (Remember that you are in charge of your health.)
This task, my grandfather said, simply requires remembering:
Almost the first thing the doctor told me was I have choices to make about my own health. . . . We all have a power to make this kind of choice. And exercising that choice is an important task at the end of life. . . . Many of us will die before we make that choice. . . . The task is just to remember. We may go for long periods of time before the choice comes up. But if we have reminded ourselves it is our choice, then when the choice comes, we get a little clearer about it. . . . That helps me in my life and in facing whatever I face, and it may help us understand other people when they’re making choices about their life.Frank Rose
Lesson #2: Learning the Difference between You and Your Body (Remind yourself that you have a body and that you are not your body.)
My grandfather had a very matter-of-fact way of putting things. While I may get lost in doubt and uncertainty, taking comfort in a short statement from him, “You have a body, but you are not your body,” can cast a clarifying light that leaves my mind feeling like a clear, blue sky.
As children, we make no distinction between our body and our selves. The older we get, the more we realize that whatever we are, we are not just physical bodies. It seems important to affirm that, especially as our bodies deteriorate.Frank Rose
People can theorize and postulate to no end about whether consciousness continues after death, but the simple recognition that your experience of yourself is not determined by the state of your body sets the issue in striking relief. Whatever we are, we are not just our physical body. Swedenborg came to understand that when death is spoken of in the Bible, angels understand it to mean new life, or our resurrection. From a spiritual vantage point, the relationship is obvious: the body dies, but our spirit continues to live.
When we die the only part that dies is the physical part that was of service and use to us on earth. We continue the life of our spirit in a world where the body is no longer of any use.Secrets of Heaven §4618
Lesson #3: Asking for Help (Be willing to ask for help.)
Getting comfortable asking for help can be difficult, but it can also be a real means of spiritual growth.
As children, we learn independence. Sometimes in later life, we need to learn the opposite. We are dependent on other people. This is not only important for us. By allowing other people to help us, we are giving them an opportunity to serve. It can be hard to ask for and accept help, but sometimes we have no choice. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. Graciously accepting help is one of our main tasks as we enter the “end-of-life” phase.Frank Rose
Asking for help from others takes a certain amount of humility, so making progress at doing so can help us gather the humility we need to ask for help from God.
What is divine can flow only into a heart that is humble, because the more truly humble we are, the more distant we are from our self-centeredness and our love for ourselves. . . . This means that the Lord wants us to have humility not for his sake but for ours, so that we can be in a state that is receptive to what is divine.New Jerusalem §129:3
Lesson #4: Serving When Feeling Useless (When you feel useless because of your condition, remember that doing spiritual work is a way of serving and loving others.)
There was a direct connection between each of these tasks and my grandfather’s own experience, but I imagine that he felt this task most acutely of all. He was a man who loved to be active and to use his time productively. I remember a lesson he gave me as a child when I was complaining about needing to wait for something. He said, “You never need to be waiting. If you’re using your time to do something, then it’s not waiting.” This idea has stuck with me and has served me ever since. Although my grandfather was unable to accomplish as much outwardly toward the end, he continued growing inwardly.
Toward the end of life, a person might feel discouraged because of being very limited in what she or he can do. We enjoy making a positive difference in life, and we grieve when we can do less and less. This can be hard on our self-confidence and feeling of worth. As long as our mind is functioning, there is one thing we can always do, no matter how physically weak we become: we can work on our spiritual state. We can do things to have a more positive attitude. This will affect those near us in a very positive way. Our job is to make the best of our situation. This can lift the spirits of those near us. It is a wonderful way to serve others.Frank Rose
Whether it was cracking jokes with the hospice nurse or writing these spiritual lessons down for others, he made use of every moment he had.
Lesson #5: Living in the Present (When you find yourself dreading something in the future, put your attention on something positive in the here and now.)
I have long admired my grandfather for how he embodies living in the present moment. Hearing from him about this task underscored for me just how much it really is a skill that we need to develop. And even for my grandfather, living in the present moment required an intention that he needed to continually refresh in his mind.
As I lie in bed, I find that my mind wants to take me into the future and some terrible thing that will happen then, like cancer, a stroke, or a heart attack. I find that this is not helpful and takes away my peace of mind. Jesus cautions us about having anxious thoughts about the morrow. The reality is that we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and we only upset ourselves by dwelling on various dire possibilities. This is a matter of where we put our attention. We can choose to find something positive that is in our life here and now.Frank Rose
In his very uncomplicated way, my grandfather neatly addressed the enormous burden of fear and anxiety. By acknowledging the reality simply (worrying about the future takes away peace of mind), identifying the issue (it’s a matter of where we put our attention), and making plain a solution (find something positive, or even neutral, in the here and now to focus on), he essentially described a mindfulness practice.
Lesson #6: Making a Shift in Your Attitude toward Death (When you think of your own death, remind yourself that death is not a curse; it is a blessing.)
Our relationship to death is a potent touchpoint for spiritual reflection. We resist thinking about death, but quite often it’s the things that we resist most strongly that hold the greatest potential for our transformation. My grandfather was willing to give death his attention, and his resulting insight is exquisite.
Throughout most of our lives, death is a curse. When a loved one dies, we grieve, sometimes for decades. In hospitals, death is the enemy, and rightly so. People killed in war are honored as paying the last price. If we have a spouse and children, we pray for their health and safety. We fear their death. For most of our life, we have the attitude that death is bad and life is good, but then we come to the end stages of our life and this attitude has to reverse. Many of us face death at some early stage of life where it is difficult to see a fatal illness as a blessing. Those who die in old age might find it easier to accept. The reality is that death is a good thing. (We do not have the wisdom to know when it is best.) A person might die without coming to this awareness. Others may get it fairly late in the process. In the end, we will all know that death is good.Frank Rose
Hearing my grandfather’s thoughts on this task led me to the realization that our body knows how to die. In fact, it is designed to die. Just as my body knew how to go against cellular norms in order to proliferate cells into a growing baby, and then later knew how to go into labor and give birth, my body must also know how to die.
There must be some chemical dance between the heart, the lungs, and the brain, as they communicate with one another about how to settle out of service, to let go. A body that has always been able to heal needs to shift its current for the sake of the spirit; it needs to shut itself down.
Neither death nor pregnancy “makes sense” to our body’s homeostasis. They both go against the grain of what all organ systems normally do. Nevertheless, they are specialized processes that the body knows how to orchestrate. The processes of birth and death mirror each other in many ways, and this striking parallel lends credence to Swedenborg’s statement that “dying symbolizes fresh life” (Secrets of Heaven §6036).
Lesson #7: Coming into Acceptance (Practice acceptance.)
My grandfather came to accept that death is a good thing, but accepting the reality of one’s own dying is the ultimate task.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross did a study of dying patients and came up with stages of grief, the last being acceptance. This involves letting go of any desire to control the situation. It involves giving up the fight to avoid death. It is a peaceful and gentle state of welcoming things as they are. There is no need to try to stop the inevitable. This can be a real blessing to the dying person as well as to loved ones caring for the person. It is a way of putting our life completely in the hands of God.Frank Rose
This practice of acceptance is another gateway to humility.
When real humility is present in a person he surrenders all power to think or do anything by himself and abandons himself completely to the Divine, and in this condition draws near to the Divine.Secrets of Heaven §6866
My grandfather lived each of these seven tasks to the end, and he was even able to finish out the spiritual growth series. The final session was on October 7th, and a week and a day later, he drew near to God and by his own death was able to give himself completely to the Divine.
Through these lessons and by his living example, my grandfather clarified one additional lesson for me: death is a matter of life; dying is living. The two are inseparable, such that “our new life starts the instant we die” (Secrets of Heaven §6036). My grandfather continued to grow spiritually even as he died, and his labor was not in vain: even in death, life remains victorious.
Frank S. Rose (1927–2020) was the retired pastor of Sunrise Chapel in Tucson, AZ. He was a renowned watercolor artist, preacher, and author. Frank also authored two Swedenborg Foundation books: The Joy of Spiritual Living: Simple Steps to Your Best Self and The Joy of Spiritual Growth: Real Encounters. To view a memorial celebration of Frank’s life, go to https://youtu.be/OVZKpkXofk8. And for more information about the spiritual growth groups he led, visit https://choosejoynow.org/.