Public speaking, private grief and my personal experience with the afterlife

image of a hand reaching toward the sun and disappearing into a lens flare.
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I don’t do public speaking.

I’m a writer, not David Letterman. I have a galaxies-better chance of entertaining someone through the written word than the spoken word.

This fact was hammered painfully home when, as a student at Mogadore High School, I was giving a speech in English class one day about the Apollo Moon landings — a topic I found fascinating, anyway — only to look up from my notecards on the podium to see a girl sitting not five feet away from me with her head buried in her arms on her desk.

Sound asleep.

Since I figured the final frontier was as enthralling a topic as they come, the problem must have been me: I was a terrible public speaker. I wasn’t giving a speech, I was presiding over a snore-a-thon.

The fear of standing in front of a crowd waxing poetic that was instilled in me that day never left. It became part of my DNA, rearing its ugly head each time I swallowed hard and strode to the front of a classroom, terrified, to deliver speeches the rest of my time in high school and later at the University of Akron as part of my course work in Mass Communications — the absolute worst major to choose for someone with a fear of public speaking. (To be fair, I chose the major to be a writer; I didn’t realize that I would have to hold court in front of college classrooms until it was too late.)

I say all this because when I was recently asked to deliver a talk about my nonfiction book Glimpses of Heaven: Dream Visitations from the Afterlife — and a Visit To Eternity (iUniverse 2019) to the local chapter of Helping Parents Heal, a nationwide support group for grieving parents who have lost children, I instinctively balked. The mere thought of standing at a lectern in front of people trying to hold their interest for an hour or more was, well, terrifying.

I was in English class at Mogadore all over again.

But I had forgotten to take one thing into account: Covid-19. Due to pandemic protocols, my book talk would not be given in person. Instead, it would be done via Zoom — still with eyeballs peering at me, but only digitally. I would be on camera, not front and center in front of an audience.

So, after much deliberation and consultation with my wife, Kim, with a lump in my throat I decided to take the plunge and step out of my comfort zone: I accepted the gracious offer to speak to the Helping Parents Heal group on Zoom.

After doing so, I immediately reverted back to that panic-stricken teenager of decades ago and thought, “What have I done?” But I couldn’t turn back now; I had already committed to a time and date and members were signing up to “attend” the event.

Therefore, I adopted a “once more unto the breach” mentality. Whether I was going to calmly walk to the laptop in our family room that night or have to be dragged to it kicking and screaming, the fact of the matter was, like it or not, there was going to be a book talk, I was going to give it, and people were going to watch and listen (and, hopefully, stay awake).

And not only am I glad I went through with it, I got at least as much out of the presentation as the group members did. In fact, I’m quite certain I learned more from them than they did from me.

Because each face staring back at me through the computer screen had buried a child. Each face hanging on my every word had received that awful, life-altering phone call that their kid was dead, or sat by their bedside as they lay dying, or been told the dreaded words “there’s been an accident” and had their lives permanently changed in an instant.

There they were, sitting in front of their computers from the comfort of their homes, hoping that I had some words of wisdom for them as I related my own experiences of losing loved ones that I detail in my book.

With one caveat: Several of my deceased loved ones have come back for a final goodbye, a visit in the dream state to let me know that all is well where they are and we will be together again. Glimpses of Heaven ultimately is a story of hope, and hope is what the Zoom audience wanted to take away most of all from my presentation the night of April 11.

Hope that there is more to this life than meets the eye, that death is merely a transition of shedding our physical shells in this plane of existence so that our souls can live forever in the next. Hope that this isn’t the end. Hope that, most of all, each grieving parent in front of me will see their child again.

As soon as the presentation began, I instantly lost my fear of public speaking and instead lost myself in relaying the very real experiences that have happened to me since high school to a group of people that has suffered unimaginable pain and loss. Considering what they had been through, I couldn’t escape the feeling that anything I said to them would seem trivial by comparison.

For example, the woman who serves as the head of the local chapter of Helping Parents Heal and who extended the invitation for me to speak to the group had endured the death of her high school-aged son when he was killed in a car crash by a drunk driver.

That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.

What do I say to someone who has gone through such unspeakable tragedy? The only thing I knew to say was the one point that was driven home to me by my deceased loved ones through their visitations, and the main point that permeates my book:

There’s more.

The visitations I have received in the dream state convinced me of this, left no doubt in my mind that we live on after death. Can I prove it? No. But those who don’t believe can’t disprove it, either. They have their arguments to support their position, but I have my experiences. I know what’s waiting.

And while the book is written from the Christian perspective, the idea of dream-state visitations and an afterlife are not Christian creations. In fact, it predates Christianity by thousands of years. As I wrote in the book:

“The Greeks and Romans of antiquity strongly believed that dreams were actually messages from the dead. The ancient Mesopotamians and Chinese believed that the soul, or at least part of it, could actually visit people and travel to other places in the dream realm. So this belief — this experience — of the soul journeying to other dimensions and realities during physical slumber cuts across all cultures, races, religions, philosophies and epochs.”

This was an important revelation during my research for the book. I didn’t want to come across to the reader as a Bible-thumping, fire-and-brimstone evangelist trying to explain why my worldview was right and any other was wrong.

Far from it. Yes, I’m a Christian, but on a basic level. I haven’t attended a church service in decades. If I’m seen in a church, it’s either for weddings or rummage sales. I believe in the primary tenets of the Bible, but I’m no theologian or Bible scholar and I won’t be found sitting in a pew on Sunday mornings. It’s just not me.

So the fact that a belief in dream-state visitations from loved ones and the existence of a hereafter goes back millennia, long before Jesus of Nazareth walked the Earth, cemented in my mind that there is something to it. It has been with us almost since the dawn of civilization — or even the dawn of humanity itself. That, coupled with the fact that I was the recipient of so many of these visitations, despite not possessing an overtly strong religious faith, lent additional credibility that what I experienced was real.

In other words, it wasn’t the mind of a religious zealot wishing certain things to be true and painting a biased dreamscape while I slept. In fact, quite the opposite: I can’t quote chapter and verse from the Bible — any chapter or verse — yet when I pored over Bible passages to make sense of these visitations, I was startled to find several parallels between what I experienced and what was written in the Bible.

I have had several visitations from deceased loved ones while in the dream state, beginning when I was 17 years old. Both my grandfathers, my maternal grandmother, two uncles, my father and even our cat Sylvia — yes, a cat — have come to me in the dream state. These visitations are not a murky, nonsensical series of convoluted events that are difficult to explain and decipher upon waking up. Instead, they are in color, they are amazingly detailed, they make perfect sense, they follow a linear time progression, and they occur so close to our conscious reality that it’s difficult to discern the difference between a visitation and our actual three-dimensional world.

So much so, that I have reached the conclusion that although these visitations occurred during my dream state, they actually took place … somewhere. Another dimension? Another reality? The proverbial Other Side? Wherever they were, I was there with my loved ones, deceased here on Earth but alive and well in their realm. Some of the visitations were brief, some were long; most, but not all, involved conversing with my loved ones. I could clearly see them, hear them and feel their love. I was with them, and it was as real as if they were sitting next to me right now.

I was given warnings that later came to pass. They told me they would see me again. They told me they are OK where they are. And my father personally showed me that Heaven exists.

It took me over a year to write the book, primarily because of the intense personal nature of the material. It’s deeply painful to relive the deaths of your loved ones, to feel that searing ache in your heart all over again, to see their lifeless bodies in their caskets in your mind’s eye, to be at their funeral services and gravesites again. Because, quite frankly, it’s all still fresh. No matter how much time goes by since a loved one has died, it’s always right there just below the surface, a hole in your soul that is never closed.

It’s our way of carrying our loved ones with us as we go through life. In that sense, we give them life; after all, they are part of us. We share their DNA. It’s why we can actually feel their presence at times, either around holidays or birthdays or in certain places or at certain times of the year. We feel them because they are physically a part of us.

And we feel them because, as my dad said in one of his three visitations to me, they are always here, we just can’t see them. My grandmother told me the same thing.

Of course, writing a book of this nature runs the risk of ridicule. It challenges paradigms, and there are those who aren’t comfortable having their beliefs challenged. They have their world wrapped up in a nice, tidy box, and that world makes sense to them. They can see it, feel it, touch it, smell it and hear it. They understand that world, so anything outside the box threatens them. They are afraid of what lies just past their box’s boundaries. And that fear often manifests in mockery, sarcasm and derision directed toward the object of their disaffection. It’s their defense mechanism against anything or anyone that tries to drag them out of their comfort zone.

The book is now over two years old, and the response I have received to this point has been overwhelmingly positive. When I put out a call on social media for people to send me their own visitation experiences, I was amazed at how many stories I received and how quickly I received them. One by one they rolled in, candidly detailing visitations from their own deceased family members that carried the same theme as my own: This isn’t the end, and we will see them again.

And for that reason, writing the book ultimately was cathartic for me. Sure, the grief and pain of loss will always be there, but as I wrote, I felt close to my loved ones, as if the words began to spring them to life. I could feel them as I wrote about each one, chapter by chapter. Maybe they were in the room with me, maybe they were in another plane of existence.

Either way, they were there. The same way the children of the Helping Parents Heal group are there.


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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.