My dead began to come to me many years ago. The first was Harold Lasswell, a great teacher of mine at Yale. It happened on December 18, 1978, as I was walking up the stairs of the main building at Commonweal. I was 35 years old at the time. Suddenly a very sharp image of Harold’s broad, kind face—framed by his thinning white hair and his sparkling clean glasses—appeared before my eyes. It startled me. I’d never had an experience like that before. The next day I took a plane to New York City. Shortly after I arrived, a friend told me Harold had died the previous day.

Harold wasn’t just a great teacher. He was a true polymath—a “one-man university” as one biographer described him, whose “competence in, and contributions to, anthropology, communications, economics, law, philosophy, psychology, psychiatry and sociology are enough to make him a political scientist in the model of classical Greece.” Most critically to me, he favored me with his friendship—and he shared with me a fundamental fascination with the connection between personality and politics, which has been one of the central concerns of my life work.

So the question I have asked myself ever since Harold so distinctly appeared to me on the day of his death three thousand miles away is why he chose—if choice is involved—to come to me. He was a treasured teacher, but I only came to know the scope of his brilliance decades after his death. And while he gave me the gift of his friendship, we weren’t that close. My only tentative conclusion has been that Harold somehow knew that I would not write off his appearance to me as an aberration and forget about it. Perhaps he somehow knew that his appearance to me over half a lifetime ago would mark the beginning of a turning point. For in the following decades, I moved from being an agnostic about the soul surviving death to an increasingly strong and carefully calibrated belief that the soul does survive death. The implications of that possibility for the nature of Reality itself could not be more profound.

Over the years, hundreds of people, especially Cancer Help Program alumni, have told me similar stories of friends and family who have appeared to them as they died, or were about to die, or after they died. Many alumni have also told me of NDEs—near death experiences—in which they found themselves looking down on their bodies, experienced a life review, sometimes had beloveds come to greet them, entered a dark tunnel, moved toward a light, and then were called back, or chose to come back. They never fear death again.

In my 80th year, I can tell you that death has become a familiar. After a major surgery in 2020, my dead began to appear to me with ever greater frequency. They came first most often in dreams. Then they came more often in waking experiences. My father, a complete non-believer in life after death, came in a dream to tell me with great earnestness that “the other side is real.” 

When we began the Cancer Help Program at Commonweal in 1976, I was entirely agnostic about whether the soul survives death. Little by little, my conviction of its likelihood grew. Now, I’d say I am probably 95% convinced it is true—at least for some, if not universally. I’m inclined to believe that soul survival is part of a much more profound ecosystem of the Reality of the unseen world. This Hindu prayer sums it up for me.

Lead me from the unreal to the Real,

From the darkness to the Light,

And from the fear of death to the knowing of immortal Life.

We have many resources on devoted to death and dying. What I want to offer you here is the thought that exploring your thoughts and feelings about dying can, for some, be part of your healing from the start. I encourage you to read the sections of devoted to death and share them with your loved ones. 

Learn more

See links to helpful resources in our Dying Well handbook ›

We also welcome you to join our sister program Healing Circles Global’s virtual circles on Death and Dying: Impermanence and the Gift of Life ›

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About the Author

Michael Lerner

Michael Lerner is co-founder of Commonweal and co-founder of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, Healing Circles, The New School at Commonweal, and CancerChoices.

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Michael Lerner is co-founder of Commonweal and co-founder of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, Healing Circles, The New School at Commonweal, and CancerChoices. He has led more than 200 Commonweal Cancer Help Program retreats to date. His book Choices In Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer was the first book on integrative cancer care to be well received by prominent medical journals as well as by the patient and integrative cancer care community.

Michael Lerner Co-Founder