The Meaning of Forever Project is collecting and sharing stories that demonstrate how death of the physical body is not the end; that, as soul, we live on, along with the love we have shared.
We might call these new states—where those who have passed are allowed to meet with others they have loved—heaven. Sometimes, those of us left behind are given a glimpse of this heaven so that we can take comfort in knowing our loved ones have life beyond what we see with our physical eyes. We hope our project will help others catch that glimpse.
By Dr. Joan Olinger
I am so blessed to have been born into my family. My Mom and Dad always modeled being loving and kind to all of life, our fellow humans, animals, and plants. Both of my parents grew up on farms, and they learned to cherish all life. For them, everything was aglow with God’s love. From their example, I learned a desire to bring comfort to others.
Part of the immense blessing of my family was that there always was an interest in the continuation of life after death of the physical body.
Mom’s brother Keith died in his sleep at the age of 14. The entire family was shocked and despairing. But, during this despair, Keith appeared to a younger brother, Duane, as Duane walked to the barn to do his chores. Keith was ahead of him, entering the barn too. Duane ran after Keith, but couldn’t catch up. He searched the barn but couldn’t find his brother.
Still, Duane’s heart was so deeply touched by that experience he decided to become a minister. And he did fulfill that dream, ministering beautifully to his congregation for decades. All of Keith’s siblings became very active in their churches, too. Keith’s brother Ken, also became a minister and provided wonderful loving care to his congregations. Keith’s sisters, including my Mom, also ministered to others in their own loving ways. Many were directors of Sunday school for their churches, choir directors, or otherwise very active in their faith.
My Grandmother, Ethel Voas, had been profoundly grief-stricken by Keith’s death and reportedly took to bed for four years. Then, one night she had a dream in which her son came to her. He was with the old family dog who had also passed on. The two of them were herding sheep, just as Keith used to do as part of his chores. He greeted his Mother and told her he was fine. He said not to mourn him anymore. This experience transformed my Grandmother’s life. She arose from her bed, no longer grief-stricken or depressed and began to write beautiful poems about the continuation of life. (See our January 29 and March 9 blog posts for some of Ethel’s poems and the consoling letter she later wrote to a dear friend who also lost a child.)
My Mother, Mary Voas Olinger, was also deeply touched by her brother Duane’s experience of seeing Keith in the barn, and by her mother’s transformation after meeting her son well and alive in a dream. One of my Mom’s great interests was walking through graveyards and reading the headstones to learn about the people remembered there. She was also a keen reader of the books written by renowned author and speaker Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, and even had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Kübler-Ross one day after a speech. (See our website for book titles by Dr. Kübler-Ross and others who have shared her interest.)
This family interest in death and what happens afterwards extended to me as well. My Mom’s fascination influenced my reading from a young age. As a kid, I was reading books like Death Be Not Proud by John Donne and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Then later, as a twenty-year-old, I read Raymond Moody’s book called Life After Life about near-death experiences.
Like my Mom’s brothers I, too, went off to University to become a minister. Mom’s stories about her brother Duane seeing his deceased brother Keith in a vision impacted my life too. My focus in University did shift from being a minister to becoming a clinical psychologist, but my interest in the possible continuation of life after death remained unabated. When I worked as a psychology professor, I encouraged my students to write papers about death and had a grief counselor come and talk with my class. Years later, I was also able fulfill my dream and become a member of the clergy in my church.
When my parents passed on, I also learned a tremendous amount about what happens before and after death. Shortly before my father died, he told my brother about a near-death experience during which he had seen the light and completely lost his fear of death. My Dad was changed by this experience and became very interested in spiritual things. He went with me and Mom to spiritual events and had me watch spiritual TV shows with him. My Dad was so transformed by this experience that he even changed his name to John, which means “loved by God”.
On the evening we had the memorial service for my Dad, my Mom told me the story about how her brother Duane had seen his brother Keith heading for the barn in a vision. My Mom had dementia, and she told me the story many times that night. It was very important to her that I understood my Dad was not dead, but alive in heaven. Her telling me that story again and again was a great gift to me, and it eased my grief.
My Mom lived about three more years after Dad passed on. Her dementia became very severe towards the end of her life. I would phone her every night because I knew that, soon, she would not be able to speak. I wrote down every word she said, so I could hang on to it forever and cherish her words. I know if people had heard us talking, they probably would have thought most of it was nonsensical. But the love that flowed back and forth between us was very real.
I would tell her I was sending her a million hugs and kisses and would ask her if she had received them. She would say that they landed on her right toe and went all the way up her back. We’d both laugh. We would tell each other how much we loved each other. For the rest of the conversation, I would just say “yes”, “thanks for telling me about that”, “that’s interesting”, because I couldn’t understand my Mom’s words. But I surely could feel how much we both wanted to connect and share love. It was an incredibly special time. I valued every moment. I knew my Mom might soon become totally unable to speak.
For most of my life, I have been a workaholic. With significant embarrassment, I now write that I haven’t always made time for non-work things, like important relationships, because I always felt I would meet up with someone later. But this time with my Mom was an exception. I made time to call her every night. This was a time of incredible closeness and shared love between us. It was sacred.
Then a time came when I’d call my Mom, but the nurses couldn’t rouse her from sleep. I guessed that she was coming to the end of this earthly life and booked a flight so I could see her one last time. Before I could get on the plane, she passed peacefully in the night. I was devastated that I had not reached her before she died.
On that flight back to my Mom’s place, I was weeping and wishing I could have seen her alive. Suddenly, I saw my Mom in a vision. I had been uplifted in consciousness and was seeing Mom in heaven. She was beaming from ear to ear. She appeared to be in her 30’s, and she was healthy. Standing next to her was my Father, who also was also beaming. Mom’s parents were shoulder to shoulder with her, all of them radiant with joy. In the background, I could see other relatives coming to join them. I then knew that Mom, Dad, and my grandparents were alive, healthy, and very happy in heaven. This experience was as real as any I had ever had.
This experience transformed my life and inspired me to create a book of similar stories with my dear friend Ruth Edgett, whose mother had also recently died. We call our project The Meaning of Forever, and we are collecting stories from people who have had comforting experiences with loved ones who have passed on. If you have a story to share, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
In the process of gathering many special stories, we have run into more bumps and delays than I had originally anticipated. I also became very busy in my work and began to wonder how much to continue with in the project. Then I went to a spiritual seminar and contemplated on my dilemma. I asked my inner spiritual guide what to do. He replied, “Do what you love, and love what you do”.
I spend a lot of time talking with people about their experiences surrounding death of the physical body. I love doing this, because it fulfills my desire to bring comfort to others who are grieving, and I know that working on The Meaning of Forever Project is one way to do that. It is a very joyful way for me to live my parents’ legacy. I am truly doing what I love and loving what I do.