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You Don't Have to Believe in Heaven to Find Life after Death

Posted: 03/30/11 10:52 PM ET

Just after I introduced myself as his hospice chaplain, Charlie recounted the day he heard the news of the diagnosis. He was an active, 60-year-old retired salesman, married 35 years to Belle.

"It was a worst case scenario," he reported, "The cancer had spread everywhere." His doctors gave him six months. He and Belle were devastated. They phoned their oldest daughter who lived out-of-state, and told her the news through a veil of tears.

Daughter Susan sobbed and sobbed, and eventually managed to whisper, "but you can't die ... I'm pregnant and due in seven months!" It was Charlie's first grandchild -- the thought elated him. The worst day of his life was also the best.

And here he was -- a hospice patient. Charlie looked at me and acknowledged, "I may not live to see my grandchild, and I don't know what to do." But at our next meeting a few days later, he knew what he wanted and told me about it.

Charlie wanted life after death, but not in some far off, heavenly place. "I don't even know if there is such a thing as heaven," he admitted. "No one knows. But I do know that there is such a thing as love which holds us close to each other." He explained that most of all, he wanted to live in the mind and heart of his grandchild.

So he wrote down ten of his best and wisest thoughts: "Try your hardest," "Believe in yourself," "Be kind," and so forth, concluding with "Your grandpa loves you." He asked his wife, an experienced quilter, to embroider these sayings on a baby blanket.

Five months later, Charlie died. A week after the funeral, a baby shower was held for Susan. After the gifts were unwrapped, Belle presented the final gift. A quilted blanket for the baby, embroidered with wise sayings and a grandpa's love.

Grandpa's blanket, as it was called, became a daytime companion and a nighttime comfort to Charlie's granddaughter until the age of four. She carried it everywhere. It now hangs on her wall, and the last thing read to her at night are Charlie's reassuring words, "Your grandpa loves you."

She never met her grandfather Charlie ... but she knows him, and feels his love and presence every day.

Charlie got his wish. He lives, even after his death, in the mind and heart of his granddaughter. The baby blanket he created became a powerful way to pass on his legacy.

Legacy can refer to the totality of a person's life, or to the impact or influence of our lives in the world. For those near the end of life -- and for their loved ones -- legacy building offers powerful comfort at the end of life. It provides a way to ensure a continuing presence in this world and to leave something meaningful behind.

Psychologist Erik Erikson hypothesized that a late stage of personal development is generativity: the need to create a positive legacy that lives on after death -- to leave a part of the self to future generations to help guide their lives.

Legacy building provides a way to address fundamental spiritual questions: "How have I made a difference in the world?" "What is the value of my life?" "What is my place and purpose in the universe?

Typically, life after death implies going to heaven. A 2005 ABC News poll indicated that most Christians in the United States envision continued existence in a heavenly, other-worldly place after death.

However, the practice of legacy-building expands the way we think about afterlife.

For those whose spiritual worldview may not envision or emphasize a supernatural afterlife, legacy building can diminish existential anxiety about death. Legacy building provides "this-worldly" possibilities of eternal life through the indelible impact that we make on those around us. It provides hope of continuing existence through everlasting bonds or ongoing influence in the world.

The story of Charlie's legacy teaches us that life can transcend death, regardless of how we think about heaven. Nowadays, there are many ways that seriously ill patients, family members and counselors can do "legacy work" to bring grace and meaning to the end of life.

In recent years, the practice of writing an ethical will has become a popular and useful tool to assure continued presence and influence after death. Ethical wills are documents prepared before death that contain reflections, blessings, instructions, personal histories, or values to be passed on to others.

Also, "living eulogies" can provide great comfort to those facing the end of life. Messages, emails and videos can be sent to people who are seriously ill. Friends and family members can share stories and reminisce about meaningful times. These testimonies of enduring connections and contributions are powerful affirmations of life and legacy.

Counselors dealing with end of life issues increasingly rely on therapies that involve legacy building. In reminiscence therapy, the counselor encourages a patient to recall and share memories and past experiences.

Dignity therapy involves life-affirmation and legacy-building. It is more directive and structured than reminiscence, as a "generativity document" is produced after sessions of recalling and discussing life experiences.

Life review therapy is deeper and more evaluative. Patients reflect on the meaning of their lives, and come to terms with difficult aspects of their past. Typically, this process involves reframing the past in order to more gracefully confront death and more effectively cope with the end of life.

Life after death is often conceived as mysterious and other-worldly, but it is not necessarily so. We create an enduring legacy through day-to-day existence -- in who we are, in what we do, and in the totality of our lives. You don't have to believe in heaven to find life after death.

This post is adapted from Living with Grief®: Spirituality and End-of-Life Care, available from the Hospice Foundation of America's bookstore. This book is a companion piece to the Spirituality and End-of-Life Care educational program.

Hospice Foundation of America is dedicated to helping the millions of Americans each year who cope with terminal illness, death and grief. Our website serves as a well-regarded resource for information end-of-life care and grief.