In my work as a bereavement facilitator trainer, I have the opportunity to meet a lot of interesting and loving people who have a real passion for working with the bereaved. Many times, their passion comes from having been deeply bereaved themselves. Somehow they came out of the darkness and into the light. Many times, they were successful in finding hope again because someone kindly and thoughtfully walked the grief journey with them. Other times, they found peace in the idea of death from a spiritual or paranormal episode such as a near-death experience.
Richard Lee Bilon, the author of the story excerpted below, is one of those who found peace with death through his own illness and experiences. Richard is a Vietnam veteran whose PTSD has influenced his life deeply. Beyond the accumulated grief of war, he lost beloved family and friends over the years. His story, which he offered to me for general sharing, reveals that hope can be found when one least expects it and from the genuine Source of life itself.
[In January of 1998,] I was in the hospital in a very critical state. I had been diagnosed with a brain aneurysm and this caused many other complications. While there for a month, I had a very special, life-changing experience of God’s love. It was either a dream or perhaps reality, but while I was “unconscious” I felt like I was traveling through a valley, a tunnel, or a building. It was very dark but then toward the end, God showed me His wonderful and beautiful light. It was on my left side of the walkway. I could see its brilliance, as if looking through a window on a sunny day. This was the brightest light I have ever seen, more resplendent than the sun. Unlike the sun, this did not hurt my eyes when I looked at it directly. Later, I came to a room with an open walkway to outside. It was at this place that I was invited into Heaven.
Heaven was outside of wherever I was. As I gazed out in awe, I heard dozens of people laughing and playing. Then I heard a voice, so soft yet so compelling, calling to me. “Was it Jesus?” I now ask myself? The voice encouraged me to come out and join the group. The voice also told me that I could stay (in bed) if I wished. Suddenly, feeling extremely exhausted, I responded that I would stay where I was and rest awhile in the bed which was in the room. Then, I became asleep back in (my) bed in the hospital.
Several days or weeks later this beautiful phenomenon happened again, in exactly the same way. However, [while I was in the experience] I did not remember the first occurrence. I acted as if this was the first time that this occurred to me.
As I reflect upon these events, I recall that while in this state of light, it was very interesting that all of these conversations were in my mind and in my heart. There was no sound or words spoken; it was quiet but I knew what was being said to me and what I said back. Maybe I was not in my body. Perhaps I was only my spirit, my soul. I hadn’t even thought to check if my hands or feet were still a part of me. I just assumed that they were.
Heaven was a very beautiful place, full of flowers and grass. It was very quiet and peaceful. There were small hills and level land all over. The temperature was fine, not too cold and not too hot, just right for me.
Richard’s story has common themes that will be familiar to people who have been seriously ill. They return to consciousness and, eventually for many, to full health realizing that death leads to a new life. Death no longer scares them. Helpers in bereavement care and facilitation can use these stories to help the bereaved to find some peace when they are uncertain of their deceased loved one’s new life in death.
I haven’t had a near-death experience, but I have experienced my deceased loved ones through dreams and signs. I don’t know where my dead brother, sister, and father reside on a daily basis although I believe they are with God in a realm that isn’t too far from this one we live on Earth. In fact, I know (rather than believe) they continue to exists and watch over us. As my sister lay dying, for example, she clearly saw and pointed to my father and brother in her room. A hospice nurse independently confirmed their presence. That was one of several very real assurances of their continued existence.
However, knowing that my loved ones are in an entirely new life doesn’t always lessen my grief at not having them here—on Earth—with me. So, when we’re talking with other bereaved people, it’s really important not to use such stories as a stick to beat them into submissive “peace.” All of us, whenever we grieve, will do so at our own pace and in keeping with our unique life histories, needs, and feelings for the dead.
Richard’s story can give us hope. At the same time, let’s remember that the pain of grief is natural, normal, and necessary. It’s not only okay but perfectly reasonable to hold both hope and grief simultaneously. We can be assured that while grief never fully goes away, with active mourning, it will soften over time.