A Spiritual Director on Inspiring 'Sunset Moments' of the Dying

Spiritual director Ann Satterfield talks about mysteries and miracles that can occur at the end of life on this earth.

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- Posted on Mar 17, 2017

An artist's rendering of a glowing heavenly light hovering over a patient's bed

“Death is a great adventure and a discovery,” says Ann Satterfield. In her role as a General Theological Seminary trained spiritual director and as a chaplain at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering hospital in New York, she’s been witness to many end-of-life experiences that seem to defy earthly explanations. Mysterious Ways assistant editor Dan Hoffman interviewed her to learn about her experiences with death over the years.

What unusual experiences do people typically have during their loved one’s final days, or at the moment of death? Have you heard stories that seem to hint at a world beyond ours?

There are lots of stories. I think sometimes people are shy about discussing them, but in spiritual support groups people are more at ease. Each story is unique, but people who are with the dying often describe a sense of peace along with grief or sadness. They may feel a sense of being held in loving energy, or have a vision of the dying person happy and whole in their afterlife.

These visions may or may not be shared by others in the room, but it’s not just a fantasy or a daydream—it comes from a reality beyond what can be empirically verified. It can also be as simple as just an overwhelming sense of tranquility. These experiences can touch any of the five senses. Some people feel something physical, while still others may hear something or see something. These experiences may or may not happen at the time of death; they often happen before or sometimes after.

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Before you became a chaplain, had you ever encountered a mystical experience at the end of someone’s life?

My father was a thoracic surgeon and his work involved life and death. I grew up in a home where death was not a hysterical thing; it was a fact of life. When I was little, he would take me on rounds at the hospital. I would stay in the waiting room with patients’ family members and friends. I remember asking my father why we had to be so quiet in the hospital. He just said, “Well, because people are dying.”  So even as a kid this reverential attitude about death made sense to me.

Years later when my father was dying, I knew one evening that when I was leaving his bedside it would be the last time I saw him alive. I gazed at him and saw a warm, rosy color surrounding him like an open cocoon. Then during that night I woke up and there was a beautiful blue light in the upper left corner of my room. I heard his voice. I can’t remember the words, but I felt in my heart he was reassuring me he was happy and safe and his love for me would never die.

What are the most surprising things you have learned about death? What did you learn that they couldn’t teach you about in your training?

It wasn’t so much a surprise but a discovery. I discovered how natural being around death feels and how powerful of an experience it can be—and how in the person dying, there is usually a point of acceptance. More specifically, one of the most interesting things I found was that people who know they’re going to die are more thoughtful. They’re often very straightforward and direct in their speech.

I think that’s part of the acceptance process—they’re doing excruciatingly important inner work. This is to be honored and accepted. When they ask to be alone, respect that. When they want you with them, sit with them in love. If you speak, speak from your heart with sensitivity and care.

What can we do to better face the fear of death?

Well, first I just want to say that it’s natural to be afraid because death is a great mystery. Fear is a normal part of the process, so I tell my patients to give that fear to God. That can make the feelings less intense and allow space for peace and tranquility and love. Also know that when you die, you let go of your physical body and you are transfigured. That’s what I witnessed with my first patient as a hospital chaplain intern, Mr. C—a transfiguration of God’s light shining through him and the image of Jesus Christ.

Shortly after I had that vision, he passed away. So know that death is the completion of human life on earth, but it is not an ending. It is a beginning of new life in God. I think just accepting that death is this transformation can be powerful and may mitigate some of the fear around it.

How do you minister to a person during their last days?

There’s no one blanket rule other than making sure I’m in a state of calm and tranquility and fully present to them. I can’t be preoccupied, and I take time between each patient to prepare myself for another sacred moment. The main thing is to be there and to listen, which alone can be very healing for both the patient and their family.

It’s really all about the dying person, so I always ask, “What is important to you now?” That is one of the biggest questions. That goes for the family members too—they need to ask themselves what is most important in the short amount of time they have left with their loved one. That can help them prepare for the loss.

What are some of the different ways you’ve seen people make peace with death and say goodbye?

Well, it’s unique for each individual obviously but people often will use their remaining time to put their affairs in order, or complete one last project that may have special meaning for them. One patient I had was of Russian ancestry from a few generations back. Before he died, he wanted to trace his ancestors to Russia and complete a family history that he could share with the people who survived him.

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The man was actually an atheist, but I still thought of him as having a spiritual nature. His concern was about leaving a legacy and about a larger cycle of life and death going back in history. He left that history to nourish his family members after he was gone, including those who have yet to be born. Focusing on what is important and accomplishing what you can supports the feeling of death as a completion.

What should people know about the moment of death? What should they look for?

It’s very typical when someone is dying and they’re not totally unconscious for the body to toss and turn. It’s not thrashing, it’s slower than that. The body stretches and pulls in different positions, turns over and back again, curls up. It’s the process of the body letting go. The person may or may not be in pain, but either way, these moments are holy. You don’t have to be free of pain to be in a sacred place.  

The moment near death when heaven sometimes seems to shine throughthe “sunset moment”can be very healing. How can we pay closer attention and see God at work?

These moments are open to everyone and God does this democratically. It’s important that the dying person, or their loved ones, make more room for God before this time, which means something different for each person—it could be a simple as taking a walk in the woods, gazing at an infant, or listening to inspiring music, certainly praying—whatever brings you closer to God.

That being said, we shouldn’t limit ourselves and expect to have a particular experience. It can show up in many different ways, later in life or earlier before the death. What’s happening is so individual and specific to each person that we can’t judge it or compare it to other experiences people have had or we’ve heard about. If someone feels like they didn’t have a special experience, that in no way means they’ve lost something, or that their loved one is suffering in the afterlife.

So we shouldn’t draw any conclusions if we don’t encounter one of these sunset moments?

No, because here’s the thing about faith, regardless of which tradition it is: Something is happening all the time, whether you perceive it or not, whether you feel it or not, whether you experience it or not—it is happening. Having an extraordinary experience is not the important thing. The daily maintenance and care of one’s spiritual life is. This will help train us to be attuned to God’s action in life. Life is miraculous and astonishing, and the sacred infuses even what seems the most ordinary moments of life.

What have your experiences with death taught you about life?

That life and death are both great mysteries and it helps to look at them as an adventure and a discovery. Even the “end” is a new adventure. God is with us at our conception and our birth, during the unfolding of life, and in death.

When we die, we begin a new life in God. He is madly in love with each and every one of us, no matter what we’ve done or left undone. Even when we feel alone and lonely, God is with us and within us. All we need to do is ask to feel his presence, slow down to let the feelings arise, and do what nourishes our spiritual lives. Any little effort we make in this direction, God will respond, and respond generously, in the power and force of unconditional, eternal love.

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