By Karin Childs
The past three weeks had seemed to drag on endlessly. It felt like months since Dad had had his heart attack and had been admitted into the hospital. These weeks had been filled with agonizing uncertainty as he lay in the intensive care unit, with tubes entering his nose, throat, and arm, enduring painful tests as the doctors tried to decide what to do. They refused to admit that he was dying—they seemed to feel that they had to keep giving us hope that he would live, that they had to try any means to keep him alive. We weren’t sure what to think or hope for.
These had been weeks full of physical hardship for Dad. He couldn’t talk because of the tubes in his throat, and writing was difficult because of the tubes in his arm. But Mom could almost always make out what he was trying to write. She spent most of her time at the hospital. She slept there, ate there, spent every moment that she was allowed at her husband’s side. She came home only to shower and change and see if her children were doing all right. We children spent a lot of time in the hospital, sometimes doing homework in the waiting room and spending time with both Dad and Mom.
Dad would write to her how he was feeling.
“I am rather weak.”
“I’m disappointed. I’m always tired and cannot smile.”
“Can I get out of this mess?”
But amid the words of pain there were messages of love.
“I LOVE YOU.”
“I love to see you always.”
“You are just great to me always.”
Then one night, as Mom slept in the waiting room, his heart stopped. The doctors and nurses quickly wrenched life back into his body with electric shock. But during that brief moment of death, his spirit experienced something wonderful. He later wrote to Mom:
“One of the most beautiful states I’ve experienced was when the heart gave up.”
Mom asked him if it was something he saw or something he felt.
“It was so fast I could only feel.”
She asked if the shock had been painful.
“The shock was not unpleasant, but disappointing.”
Did he mean that he would rather not have come back? Dad nodded, and then wrote:
“But maybe best for all others.”
So Dad had had a glimpse of what was beyond, and had felt the joy and peace that would be waiting for him when his earthly body finally gave up.
In the days that followed, Dad’s physical pain was made worse by worries. The doctors still wouldn’t give us a straight answer, and Dad began to fear that he would not die, and that he’d continue to live in a body that was sick and worn out.
“I’m so egotistical and tired the only thing I want is to die right away.”
He dreaded staying here and being useless. For my father, living without being able to perform his uses would have been torture. Now that he had glimpsed the beauty of the spiritual world, he really longed to be there—except for the fact it would mean leaving my mother. He wrote to her:
“I fear I will be useless. Maybe my desire for the spiritual world is a copout. For you the problem is that I want so badly to go to the spiritual world, but I also want to be with you, now and in May, June, December, etc.”
Finally the doctors stopped see-sawing and gave us the straight story. Yes, Dad was definitely going to die. If he wished, they would not try to revive him when the time came. It might have surprised them to know the tremendous relief this news brought to my father.
“I feel so peaceful and happy. It is incredible how the facts we cleared up which earlier put me in so unstable a state now put me into untold bliss.”
In one sense it was a relief for the rest of us also to finally know the truth. But the knowledge that we could lose Dad so soon was very painful. I had recently become engaged and was devastated that he wouldn’t be with me to celebrate my wedding, or be able to hold his first grandchild in his arms.
My brothers and sisters and I each ached with our own sorrows—regrets of what we hadn’t done for Dad in the past, and grief for what we couldn’t do with him in the future. But my mother’s devastation and grief were the deepest. She sat by his bed hour after hour, trying to gain strength for the separation that was to come. They communicated when they could through writing and speaking, but this became less frequent as Dad grew weaker. Mostly they just sat together, and touched each other, and communicated silently through the deep love they had built together during their twenty years of marriage.
The days passed, and Dad seemed to be seeing more and more into the spiritual world, as the Lord gently prepared him for the transition. When Mom once asked him in despair, “Is the Lord really leading us?”, Dad wrote in reply:
“He does. All I’ve seen during the night has told me so.”
Dad wasn’t able to tell us much of what he saw. When he did try to explain, it was hard to understand:
“Too bad I cannot tell of all I have seen. Representation, really, played out by nurses, etc. Suddenly the representation appears. Today early the Lord told me in representation, you are not going to hell and you are not going to heaven, so I stopped quickly in between. Do not fear, you’ll die but we will see when.”
Swedenborg writes about how we prepare in the other life to go to heaven:
When people go from the world to the other life (which happens right after death), they take along worldly and earthly qualities incompatible with spiritual and heavenly qualities of angels. As a result, those who are to go up to heaven are first prepared, by being stripped of the worldly and earthly qualities they brought with them. . . . Once they have been prepared . . ., the Lord takes them up and introduces them into heaven, where they join those angelic communities in which the true ideas and good impulses of faith and love harmonize with their own. (Secrets of Heaven §9763)
Writing became more and more difficult for my father. He grew weaker and the contact between his mind and the physical world became weaker, too.
“I run out of intelligent responses.”
Three days before his death he wrote:
“I hope the Lord will use me as is best for everyone.”
When I walked into the intensive care room on his last day of life on earth, I could immediately see that Dad was very close to death. He was extremely pale and still—his eyes were the only things that moved. He lay on his side with his face toward Mom, who sat close to his head by the bed. I sat next to Mom, and we began to sing.
We knew that music would be able to reach and affect more strongly than words could. Earlier during his stay in the hospital, my youngest sister had played guitar while I sang “Wait on the Lord” to him, and his reaction had been amazing. Throughout the whole song he had gestured wildly with his hands and mouthed the words “I love it!” over and over, as if he was bursting with joy.
Now, as Mom and I sang every hymn we could think of, no movement came from my father. Soon even his eyes became still, fixed in a stare at my mother’s face, though he was not yet dead. We finished a hymn, and for a moment I couldn’t think of what to sing next. Then I suggested that we sing “O Precious Sign.” As we sang the wedding hymn, he communicated one last time with Mom. From the corner of his motionless eye came one small tear, which slowly slid down his cheek. That tear spoke of their deep love. It spoke of how hard this separation would be for my mother, even though it would be temporary. Dad seemed to be saying to her, “I love you, and I don’t want you to be sad.” We then sang “Blessed the Man Who Confideth in the Lord,” and he went his way to the life beyond.
When someone’s body can no longer perform its functions in the natural world . . . then we say that the individual has died. . . . The person, though, has not died at all. We are only separated from the physical nature that was useful to us in the world. The essential person is actually still alive. . . . We can see, then, that when we die we simply move from one world into another. (Heaven and Hell §445)
In the months that followed I would shed many tears. I cried whenever I thought of Dad’s final tear. I cried for myself and my brothers and sister because we didn’t have him in our lives anymore. I cried mostly for my mother, for her devastating grief and loneliness at being separated from her life’s partner.
But I never cried for Dad himself, and this was simply because I knew that he was fine. He would now be discovering and delighting in the uses and joys of heaven.
Angelic life consists in usefulness and acts of neighborly kindness. . . . In performing them they become images of the Lord. In performing them they love their neighbor more than themselves. This makes heaven. Usefulness (that is, the good that comes of love and charity) is accordingly the substance, the source, and the measure of the angels’ happiness. (Secrets of Heaven §454)
By its very nature, heaven is full of pleasures, even to the point that if we see it as it really is, it is nothing but bliss and pleasure. (Heaven and Hell §397)
This whole experience made the idea of the spiritual world more real to me than it had ever been before. I feel so privileged to know about the afterlife. This gift from the Lord not only gives meaning and purpose to life—a reason to keep going and trying to do what’s right—but also makes a tremendous difference when losing someone you love.
I saw the gentle and loving way the Lord prepared my father for the transition from this life to the next. His death didn’t seem like a waste—I could actually rejoice for him as he began his uses in a life much more wonderful than this one. We who were left behind felt grief, but that grief was softened by the knowledge that he is not gone, that he is alive and happy, and that, if we wish, we really will see him again. I am assured that in time my mother will be reunited with my father and live with him forever as his wife.
[In the afterlife,] it often happens that married partners meet and welcome each other joyfully. They stay together as well, but for a longer or shorter time depending on how happily they had lived together in the world. (Heaven and Hell §494)
I hope that someday everyone on earth can have this wonderful knowledge, and get comfort and purpose from Swedenborg’s message.
Just as we are lovingly prepared for and welcomed to the afterlife before we die, we receive an unconditionally loving welcome right after death. To find out about what happens immediately after you die, check out our episode of the same name.
Karin Childs is a writer and host for Swedenborg & Life. Her father, Lennart O. Alfelt, died on March 12, 1981.
Also, check out “Are Married Couples Still Married in the Afterlife?”