March 19, 2009

A matter of life and death…

Posted in Between Us column, Spirituality at 6:24 am by dinaheng

My friend Rashael (pronounced Ruh-shell), who lives in the UK, is staying with me while she does a three-week rotation at the Los Angeles Coroner’s Office. When she’s done here, she’ll spend three weeks with the Baltimore Coroner’s Office.

It’s been interesting hearing an insider’s perspective on what actually happens in a medical examiner’s domain. We’d watch news of a plane crash on the TV one night, and Rashael would end up helping with the autopsies on the crash victims. What is reported as one person’s tragedy becomes an intimate part of another person’s day.

Rashael, a fourth year medical student, is fascinated by forensics and the ability to unravel secrets through science. She talks calmly about the smell of dead bodies, and holding body parts to learn the difference between healthy and diseased organs.

“I’m learning so much here,” she says. “You rarely see gun shot wounds in the UK because even the police aren’t allowed to carry guns.”

The irony is, she’s also a very spiritual person who believes that life continues after the body dies. She’s seen the apparition of a school girl dressed in Victorian era clothes and once heard what she thought was her dog panting  in the dark in her bedroom, but when she turned the light on, there was nothing there. Yes, she is terrified of ghosts.

I’ve never seen a ghost, but I believe that Life exists in numerous dimensions. When I was a teenager, I had a brush with death that has shaped my view of life.

I had just started to drive, and one stormy morning on the way to school, the car in front of me braked suddenly.  I crashed headlong into the car, and at the moment of impact, felt myself rise out of my body. I looked down at myself and a voice said to me, “It’s not time to go yet. You still have things to do.”

Then I was jerked back into my body. I’ll never forget the sudden sensation of being encased in flesh again as I “woke” to find myself covered with blood.  The driver of the car I had hit was my science teacher, and he later said, “When I opened your car door, I thought you were dead.”

That out-of-body experience made me realize there’s so much more to life than we see on the surface.  It helped me understand that the essence of who we are cannot be found through the mind and body alone, but requires a foray into spirit.  The spirit of Love.

Love, after all, is what gives life meaning. We each have a story of love that is ongoing, and ever-changing.  But when we open our hearts, and share those stories with another, we reach the place where separateness falls away, and there is only One of us.

Few people are comfortable talking about death. We put off talking to our parents about their funeral arrangements, not wanting to invite death to come sooner. We put off thinking about our own mortality, not wanting to face the unknown future that lies ahead.

But the future in all aspects of our lives is unknown. We don’t know what lies ahead in terms of health, wealth, or happiness. All we can do is live each day, trusting that good things are still to come.

That’s how I look at death. I don’t know what will happen, but I trust that it will be good. Life and death are but two sides of the same coin. One cannot exist without the other.

After a couple of weeks in the coroner’s office, Rashael has changed her mind about going into forensics. “I’ve decided I want to work with living patients,” she says. “I have tremendous respect for the doctors here. They’re the voices for the dead.

“But I’ve decided I don’t want to go home, day after day, seeing the worst of what people can do to each other and become pessimistic about life. It’s much more rewarding helping someone who’s hurt to get better. Or if they’re going to die, to help them and their families through what has to be one of the hardest times in life.”

Death certainly has a way of teaching us to appreciate life.

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