Death as a Spiritual Teacher

As I think back, I would say the beginning of my conscious spiritual quest began the summer I was 13 years old. My journey began that hot August dawn when my sobbing mother woke me to say that Theresa, my 16 year old sister, had been tragically killed in a car accident. In the wake of this shocking news I realized that I had no point of reference for dealing with death. And certainly no coping skills for dealing with the death of a sister with whom I slept every night. I grew up in a small row home in Philly with 3 brothers, 2 sisters, myself, my mom, and a dog. My oldest sister was 19 or 20 at the time and had already moved out, so Theresa and I shared one room and one bed in that little house on Williams Avenue.

Typically thirteen year olds are exploring their identities; who they are and where they fit in. Adolescence is a time for asking the existential questions: “Who Am I?” “Where do I belong?” and “What can I become?” Teens often struggle with these questions and rarely do adults sit them down and explain to them about Eric Erikson’s psychosocial developmental stages. As I think about it, teens might not listen anyway. Instead, an adolescent will explore those questions alone or with other youth. In trying to discover who they are and where they fit in, some teens may turn to drugs/alcohol, join gangs, or choose other maladaptive behaviors. Some kids join sports teams, clubs, get jobs, get involved in community activities, etc. The year following my sister’s death I turned to the solitude of the cemetery where she was buried. I was alone with nowhere else to turn. In addition to working hard to provide for our family, my mother now had the added burden of dealing with her own grief and mourning process, leaving my siblings and I to deal (or not) with our own pain, sorrow, and confusion. This is how death became my first spiritual teacher.

After the initial shock, the viewing, funeral, and Theresa’s burial, I was left with many questions about death and life. I truly wanted to understand what happens when a person dies. I wanted to know where a soul goes after it leaves the body. I needed to know where my sister was; why she left; why she was even born in the first place! Did God take her because my mom had too many kids? What is the point of life? What happens after death? And is there REALLY a God?? I was not satisfied with the rote religious answers such as “The Father has taken His child back into His kingdom” or “Remember all man that you were dust and unto dust you shall return.” Those words meant nothing to me and I wanted desperately have answers to all of my questions. I had nowhere else to turn other than my sister’s grave site. I spent that next year visiting her tombstone regularly. I walked to the cemetery almost daily and basically camped out there for extended periods of time. When I was not in school or babysitting my little brother, I went to Holy Sepulcher and talked to Theresa, to God, and to any other spirits that might have been nearby. I asked my questions out loud, in silence; I cried on that grave, I slept on that grave. I became spiritually awakened on that grave.

Theresa’s grave site was the first place I can recall hearing “voices” or “getting messages” or, as I believe, learning from Spirit World. At first I thought I was the one who was mentally responding to my own questions. Perhaps my need for answers and some type of validation was so great that it was causing me to hallucinate. So then I’d say “OK –  if that thought was God/Theresa/or a Spirit then make a bird land on the mausoleum with ‘McLaughlin’ engraved on it.” As Spirit would have it, my request was granted. Sometimes I’d have to wait a good long while. Skeptically I’d say, “well eventually a bird would have landed there anyway!” So I would then up the ante and request something a little more random or obscure and mostly (not always) I’d get some type of satisfactory response. Was I simply that desperate that I would believe just about anything? Is that the definition of faith? It wasn’t very long before I began to gain some faith in something bigger than myself. My personal experiences in the cemetery somehow made me feel connected to an unseen world. If this force was powerful enough to take a life in a flash, I wanted to be sure to revere it even if I didn’t fully understand it.

Looking back on this experience I realize there are no coincidences! It “just so happened” that somehow I came by a book titled Life after Life, by Raymond Moody. The copyright was 1975; it was published just one year prior to my sister’s death. How amazing that a book would be written at just the right time for a kid like myself who was desperately seeking information on that very subject. I believe it was Divine Synchronicity. Reading that book helped me see more expansively than I could ever have imagined. I learned so much about the soul, spirit, life, and death. Although at that time there were not many books on the topic, I find it intriguing that I managed to come upon one which furthered my spiritual growth at the very time I needed it. What I was learning made more sense to me than anything I learned from the nuns, priests, and teachers at St. Raymond’s church.

The lesson I got from this experience and the one I would like to share with you is this: Sad, awful, and terrible things happen (as we all know). However, even things we have difficulty understanding and coping with can serve to promote our spiritual growth. Perhaps the harder the challenge the greater the reward! My sister’s death was the catalyst for my spiritual development. At a time when I was exploring my identity I became a spiritual being; that’s who I am. Where do I belong? Wherever I am! What can I become? Anything I want!…Just like you can!!