The Death of the Fear of Death
Friday, December 30, 2011
New Church Perspective in Erica Hyatt, death, human selfhood, life, life after death, soul, spiritual world

Erica vividly describes the path of her life. She shares a delicate awareness gained firsthand - the resolution to an abiding question - what is death, and must I fear it? -Editor.

As a child, while most little girls were learning how to tie their shoes and walk to school by themselves, I was busy working on a more distressing task: figuring out what happens when we die. I developed the awareness very early that I would not exist forever in my current form. I was young, healthy and growing, without ever knowing anyone who died, so this existential question was slightly unexpected. I cannot identify the exact moment I was hit by this painful and terrorizing realization (and it truly felt like a blow), but I can remember staying up countless nights, trying to determine the answer. What would happen after my body ceased to exist? When the sun blew out, how could I ever come back to life if there was no habitable planet for me? What did infinity and forever look like, and how was it possible that my whole life was just a small blip on the radar screen of eternity?

As I became more anxious, I looked to my family and friends for answers. I ended up in my parents’ bedroom late at night, begging them to stop time for me. I would ask repeatedly, “What happens when we die?” My parents, born into the Jewish faith and practicing more culturally than religiously, would try to comfort me as best they could. But hearing “Death is the Great Unknown. Nobody knows for sure” was of little comfort.

As I grew, I began to hide my existential anxiety from others. Nobody else in school seemed to be concerned that life was not forever. In high school I began writing mini-manifestos about death in the quiet hours of the early morning. One night I came upon the powerful realization that if humans are energy, and energy cannot be created or destroyed, something must happen when our earthly bodies shut down. I created an “Energy Ball” theory, that we are all just beings of light and energy, and we connect with those who have similar energy to ours. After we die, our energies reconnect, like yin and yang, and we experience a sense of purity and wholeness when united in the energetic form. This was an exciting discovery for a seventeen year-old that had never: a) seen anyone die b) read anything about near-death experiences (NDEs) and c) remained baffled by the Great Unknown. I was comforted by my new theory, but as time passed, my doubt and fear returned.

I made the decision in college that I needed to see death firsthand. The process of death did not frighten me, but the impermanence of my Self was terrifying. Therefore, it seemed that the only solution was to gain firsthand experience of what it looks like when others die.

My route to the Other World was through obtaining a dual master’s degree in social work and bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, where I flung myself into the most intense internships at both the Hospital of UPenn and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. However, as a supervised intern, those who were in charge of my education kept a close eye on me and I was mostly shielded from getting too close to witnessing an actual death.

This all changed when I graduated from school and began my career as a social worker. I began to work in a variety of settings: with adults diagnosed with brain cancer; children with terminal cancer; the traumatized families of combat veterans; the seriously mentally ill, addicted, and impoverished.

I recently recounted the following “Aha!” moment in a convocation speech at Bryn Athyn College. In the interests of patient privacy, I’m going to change the name of a little girl I worked with. We’ll call her Monique.

Monique was diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer when she was eight. From that moment, she lived in and out of the hospital, receiving chemotherapy, suffering massive infections, and struggling to survive. I met her toward the very end of her life, just after she had celebrated her final birthday on this earth. That birthday was the only time I saw the child smile, surrounded by her sisters; I vividly recall her pink slippers in the hallway as the girls chased each other and danced all over our ward.

Monique had been sick for so long that her illness had depleted what little funds her family had to take care of her. Her mother, who was unmarried, took on two jobs to make ends meet and as a result was rarely at her daughter’s bedside. I remember walking into Monique’s room, feeling the profound alone-ness of this child. I never knew quite what to say except to simply be present with her, whether she was feeling better or worse on any given day. I brought her music, tried to distract her through paint-by-numbers. She was in such incredible pain, and nothing I could do would take that away. So there I sat, taking the time to be with her so that she knew someone always would be. She deserved that.

One day, after Monique was transferred to the Intensive Care Unit due to a whole-body infection, I received a call from her nurse. She told me to hurry because Monique was imminently dying and her mother was not there. I flew down the stairs separating our units and went to be with her. Monique wasn’t conscious, and I saw her heart rate dropping. I was grateful that she appeared not to be in pain and, although the machines told me that her heart was struggling and failing to keep going, she looked almost happy in that moment. A quiet face cleaned of all the disease that had weighed her down: a beautiful, beautiful little girl. I held her hand, thought about Monique’s existence, my own existence, how she was traveling through something I couldn’t possibly understand.

The process of her death—the sounds in the room, the sounds from her body, the machines—all of that is still very clear to me. And yet there was also a deeper experience in that room. Despite what the machines told me, I knew, on a very subtle level, that Monique’s soul had departed from her body. That which made Monique Monique flew away from her weary physical form.

How did I know? If I thought about it too much, I stopped knowing. But there was a transition from this earthly life to something else, something immeasurable. And being in that presence—the line so subtle between life and death that I would miss it if I focused too hard—there was something less, and yet, something more.

At that time I didn’t know about Emanuel Swedenborg, but my life was about to take a powerful turn. Meeting my husband, who brought me into this wonderful community, I learned about the man who visited the other side. As I was now completing my doctoral degree, I knew enough about psychology and mental illness to understand the truth and validity of Swedenborg’s experiences. Like me, he was a student of something far greater than just himself. And his story, the story of the New Church, flew in the face of all of my previous doubt, connected the dots between my presence at so many deaths and created a larger, more beautiful picture: that there is life after death.

Dr. Erica Hyatt

Now as an Assistant Professor in Psychology at Bryn Athyn College, I am writing my first book on NDEs and witnessing the spiritual transition firsthand. I am currently looking for individuals from all New Church locations to interview on this topic. If you have experienced an NDE, witnessed another person transitioning to or have been visited from the Spiritual World, please contact Dr. Erica at or 267-502-6081. Maybe, together, we can get a little closer to the other side.
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