04 Apr End-of-Life University: A Conversation With Dr. Karen Wyatt (Part 2)
This blog series is a transcript of a recent interview I did as a speaker for Dr. Karen Wyatt’s End-of-Life University. In our conversation we shared our own personal stories about death, transformation and the end of life. We also talked about our work in this realm, including my backstory on the documentary film Death Makes Life Possible, which will be world premiering at the Illuminate Film Festival in late May and also screened at the Afterlife Conference in early June. The beautiful web site for the movie will be launched very soon as well!
Karen Wyatt: One question that I had for you that I was really curious about, the process of making the movie itself, did that change your perspective at all? I just was fascinated by all the people you interviewed, and wondered how you found yourself transforming during this process of learning from the people.
Marilyn Schlitz: Since we’re not quite finished, I guess my after-reflections will come a little later. But it’s been a beautiful, beautiful opportunity to participate in things like The Day of the Dead. In Petaluma and in many places there is a huge celebration. It comes from the Mexican tradition where there’s an honoring of this kind of semi-permeable layer between the living and the dying. At the time of the winter solstice they believe that the veil becomes much thinner, so it’s an opportunity to appease the spirits who have transcended, so making offerings of food and drink for them.
But it’s also an opportunity to communicate and sing songs and celebrate, and be silly and act in a way that is irreverent, in some respects. So that was a very joyous possibility for me.
We went to the Oakland Zoo and filmed a gibbon who had lost his spouse. Gibbons are monogamous – they mate for life. Nikko had been married to or bonded with his partner for over 20 years and she died, and he went into an experience of grief. Gibbons, when they’re mated do these duets and they sing in the morning. Nikko had stopped singing and was really, from the external point of view, experiencing a mourning process for his beloved. So we went over and interviewed the gamekeeper and got to hear from her about what happens in nature, in the wild when animals have these losses. Her insight there was that it’s important to grieve, that animals in all aspects of the kingdom do experience loss. We see this with elephants, for example, dogs. But that it’s very important in nature to get over that because it has such a detrimental effect on the immune system and on the psychological system that people, animals, organisms generally need to be resilient.
So grief is a natural part of the process, and then that ability to move beyond it becomes very, very important. So that was a beautiful experience and I just went to the Oakland Zoo this past weekend for their annual fundraiser. They have found a new mate for Nikko. She’s a blonde. She’s very cute. They bonded immediately. The gamekeeper, the zookeeper was telling me that as soon as she came into their compound they embraced like they were long lost partners. So there’s something beautiful in that.
One of the people that we interviewed was Lee Lipsenthal. I believe you knew Lee. He was a physician and had done a lot of work on healing the healer, so working with other health practitioners on dealing with burnout and stress that comes from being a health professional, but also then dealing with his own diagnosis of esophageal cancer. His attitude about the prospect of dying was so enlightened and so beautiful. We were able to follow him through his journey and to gain insights from him about what he held as the next possible adventure. And he really did, up until the day he died really thought to explore the mystery and the adventure that was going to come next for him. That was sometimes hard for his family to understand because they were, again, in their own state of grief and loss, but it was so inspiring for people to hear.
Then we interviewed scientists. Peter Fenwick is a psychiatrist in London and has done a tremendous amount of work looking at death experiences, near death, and out of body experiences, and gaining insights from him about how you could bring an evidence based perspective to these kinds of phenomena that people report, whether it’s the deathbed apparitions, seeing somebody. Many people report at the end of life that – or many observers of someone who is dying report that the person begins to communicate with spirits. This is a very common and culturally ubiquitous kind of report that people begin to find those departed loved ones, who have already passed over, and who can help them make the journey.
We also were in a lab where scientists were studying mediums, people who believe they can communicate with these departed souls or spirits. And how do scientists begin to really try and grapple with these phenomenal and mind-boggling kinds of encounters? Then people who have had the experiences of near-death and out of body. Simon Lewis was a person who was in coma for a month. He had these profound experiences in coma, realized that there was a guide who was coming to help him come back into lived conscious awareness, and as he woke up he realized that that person was his wife, and his wife had been killed in the car wreck that had caused his coma. That led him into this journey of exploration. He’s a very ebullient, positive, life affirming person who has been able to take these tragedies in his own life experience and use them to understand better: what are the potentials for our human experience and where does that lead us as a collective? So those are just some highlights.
We interviewed an imam in the Muslim faith. They believe that the life we’re leading right now is actually the death, and what comes after that death is life. So this is the temporary and it is after that that you have that kind of permanent experience of heaven and different levels of heaven. So everything from that to an atheist, Michael Shermer, who is the editor of Skeptic magazine, who basically told me when you’re dead you’re dead and you’re done and that’s it, and hearing about his experiences. There was nothing curmudgeon-y or unhappy about him. He has no fear of death and has a very positive attitude toward life.
So I guess the insight for me, going back to your original question, is that there are in a sense multiple ontologies or multiple models of reality. You can go to a grocery store or a hospital or a school and we’re all there in the same space, experiencing that same set of products on the shelf or books on the bookshelf, and yet people are holding very different models of reality and experiencing life in fundamentally different ways. To me that’s an incredible mystery, how it is that we’re all living together as human beings and yet holding these very different views of what life is all about and what happens after.
Karen Wyatt: That perspective is so interesting because it accounts for why we have a lot of conflict going on in our society right now, because we sometimes have difficulty understanding another person’s view of reality and recognizing they just see things differently than we do. It’s as if we’re not really perceiving the same things.