Dying Well ‘At Heaven’s Door’
Afterlife Expert William Peters Pens New Book
By Hilary Dole Klein | January 13, 2022
William Peters subtitled his new book At Heaven’s Door: What Shared Journeys to the Afterlife Teach About Dying Well and Living Better. In just 13 words, he sums up his life’s work and that of the Shared Crossing Project and its Research Initiative, which he founded here in Santa Barbara. The Project studies extraordinary end-of-life experiences, focusing on shared-death experiences, in which a loved one or caregiver is allowed to witness a dying person’s journey from this life into what lies beyond.
The poet Robin Skelton famously declared: “Death is the only mystery we all solve.” But Peters’s work on the threshold between life and death demonstrates that death’s great mystery can be investigated, assessed, and unlocked by listening to the stories of those who have shared the death of another. He is at the forefront of a profound change in the way death is approached, and he says the Santa Barbara community has played a big part in this. I myself have participated in two early workshops led by Peters.
An anthology of 28 extraordinary personal stories about death and dying, At Heaven’s Door recounts the various manifestations a shared death might take. It could be anticipated or unexpected, peaceful or painful, sad or tragic, but also full of wonder — every death as unique as a birth. Each story has been chosen to illustrate what the Shared Crossing Project has learned about deaths experienced by two or more people, some shared at the bedside, others at a distance. The stories were culled from 150 interviews, some of which can be accessed at the Shared Crossing Story Library. The book is enjoyably readable, even addictive. As with books on the lives of the Saints, each story contains its own miracle.
A marriage and family therapist with degrees from Harvard and UC Berkeley, Peters had two near-death experiences as a young man and even experienced a shared death, floating out of his body along with the spirit of a dying man while sitting with him at the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco. “Being able to witness this was a divine gift — even if I didn’t quite understand it,” he says. “I also worked in the AIDS epidemic and heard stories, beautiful stories, of shared-death experiences.” His family has seen a lot of cancer, and he lived and worked in Central and South America through two civil wars. “Death was something that was not foreign to me. But I had a push-pull with it; I felt drawn to it, but I resisted it.”
Moving to S.B.
In 2009, after two years in Brazil, Peters and his family moved to Santa Barbara — for the weather, he says, and the small community. Also, having been raised in Los Altos and living in the Bay Area, he didn’t want long drives. “I was fortunate to get a position at the Family Therapy Institute. I was fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, so I was a good fit for them.” Since he was classically trained as a psychotherapist, his practice increasingly dealt with grief from bereavement as a means toward psycho-spiritual growth.
That same year, he attended a lecture by Raymond Moody, who coined the phrase “near-death experience” (NDE) in the ’70s, and whose book, Life After Life, has sold more than 13 million copies. As Moody described his new focus, the shared-death experience (SDE), Peters realized that he was already familiar with this.
“I made a commitment to myself that I was going to explore the shared-death experience and find ways that I could help people have them.” Peters started giving talks on end-of-life experiences, and he started his first group, called Life Beyond Death, in 2011. “I wanted to bring people together to discuss the literature, what we know about what happens at death, the near-death experience, and end-of-life experiences, including pre-death dreams and visions, post-death visitations, after-death communications, synchronicities, and more.”
When he first announced the group to the Family Therapy Institute and his colleagues, he says, “I was really fearful of what I’d been fearful of all the time: that I would be ostracized from my community, that I would be considered outside the fold of mental health and into woo-woo, New-Agey spiritual stuff.” That didn’t happen. The directors of FTI, Debra Manchester and Don MacMannis, and the community at large were very supportive. Peters has also received a great deal of philanthropic support from local foundations and individuals.
The groups took off. “I was getting calls from people who were friends of people in that first pilot group, saying, ‘If you do this again, I want to do it.’ And then, ‘By the way, I’ve had this experience…,’ which was basically an end-of-life experience, some sort of shared crossing.” Peters did 12 groups in the first four or five years. “The word got out. We were talking about how to have a good death, and how to have a more spiritual death, and how to honor all these experiences.”
Peters found that more than half the people in the groups would share an experience around death and dying. A lot of those were uncomfortable or undesirable experiences, primarily over-medicalized deaths — that was a big one, he says. Many of the stories involving shared deaths had never been told, or believed, because of taboos labeling them as hallucinations or the medical profession dismissing them as pathologies. “They have had what is perhaps the most profound experience of a lifetime, and the majority of these experiencers feel overwhelmingly that they can’t share it.” As one leader of hospice told Peters: “This is the secret of hospice. These things happen all the time, but we don’t talk about them.”
“I stand as a scholar, an expert myself in these experiences, who has devoted my life to studying them. Not only have I had them, but I’ve worked with hundreds of clients who’ve had them,” Peters says. “These experiences need to be honored for what they are. I know they are real, I know they are healthy, and I know they are gifts.”
My Own Journey
Enticed by the title, Life Beyond Death, and by recommendations of friends, I joined a group in 2014. I found Peters to be a gifted speaker — open, energetic, empathic, and curious. His enthusiasm about his work was infectious. I was enthralled by his description of his own NDE at the age of 17 in a skiing accident, riveted by the details and stunned by the possibilities it opened up.
As part of the workshop, I was interviewed, before and after, by Dr. Michael Kinsella, chief researcher for the Institute. A few years later, I enrolled in Doing Death Differently, which was put on jointly with Hospice of Santa Barbara. It also covered research about death and dying, along with pre-death and post-death synchronicities, dreams, and visions; post-death communications; and profound spiritual experiences with the beyond. I could see how Peters was by then formalizing the research the Institute was doing, developing a topography and a vocabulary for where it was taking him.
As I sat with him on his deck recently, enjoying a morning of post-rain sunshine, Peters stated, “This is now not a question of whether this stuff exists or not. That question is over. The question is: What is it? What’s going on here? Here are the features; here are the phenomena. Let’s run it. Let’s ask them these questions, and let’s qualitatively assess. And so that’s what we did — we coded everything.” The research has recently been published in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine.
One component of the Shared Crossing Project has been for a loved one to take a course, now called the Pathway Program, together with the person whose death has been foretold by age or illness. (Currently, anyone can enroll in the program.) At Heaven’s Door includes a story from Steven Crandell, who brought his father to a group. Larry Crandell was an iconic personality whose support of local philanthropies earned him the title “Mr. Santa Barbara.”
“My dad was skeptical of any kind of supernatural aspect,” Steven says. “He was very intuitive but not religious. He celebrated life, and he was fearful of death, but he did it for me out of love.”
Speaking from Belleview, WA, where he is director of content for Spiritual Directors International, Steven says, “Companioning people into death made a lot of sense to me. As Hamlet said, ‘There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’
“We went to group on a weekly basis. For my dad in his eighties, the workshop participants became his audience, and he loved it — he was very social. This was a place where he felt fearful and not very confident, but he found himself there.”
As it turned out, Steven’s sister Leslie and their niece Sarah were the ones in the room with Larry, when they both suddenly heard the loud, beautiful singing of birds outside the window. Leslie recounts that her father “opened his eyes, and he looked toward the window, and he smiled … and then he was gone.” Sarah also saw an image of golden light and Larry walking away, arm in arm with his two brothers and mother. “He was looking back over his shoulder, like, ‘Yeah, it’s okay. I’m good,’” she said.
“Larry was trained in this,” explains Peters. “We help people with the protocols. That is, we teach them how, when you’re dying, as you’re crossing over, to call back to your loved ones and to let them know that you are safe, well cared for, and happy. That’s the goal.”
Each death in At Heaven’s Door illustrates some type of a shared crossing, which Peters has placed on a Spectrum of End-of-Life Experiences. Bliss and joy radiate from some of the stories, as well as an unexpected calm. “Shared crossings provide comfort and peace that their loved ones are alive and well somewhere, and that they will see them again. They feel that they, too, will survive human death and go to a benevolent afterlife. The profoundness of the experience is so galvanizing that it catalyzes a great deal of personal growth and personal transformation.”
Although his story is not in the book, Francis Estep took the Shared Crossing training with his mother, Diana, a highly regarded Waldorf teacher. “I am stubbornly skeptical,” he wrote to me, “but am also deeply engaged in Buddhist study and meditation, which has encouraged an openness. I went into the class with a certain reserve but willingness to explore…. Some of the protocols were helpful to wrapping things up between me and my mother. It helped us to find an extra layer of peace in our relationship.”
At the time of Diana’s death, Francis was on the phone in the other room. “My response was part irritation that I had not been by her side, since one of the protocols was to ask her to bring me along with her as she passed, so that I knew she was okay.” But six weeks later, he had what Peters identifies as a post-death vision. He found himself traveling through a cold, artic environment, “quiet, deeply peaceful. I eventually came upon a gathering of people sitting in a circle, and in the middle of them, seated on a throne of sorts, was a lady. I knew it was my mother. All the people around her were mesmerized. She was holding court. And I knew she was okay.”
Peters uses the nomenclature “shared crossing” because “journey” is a dominant motif in the shared-death experience. There can be different stages along the way: You might witness light or heavenly realms or a life review. Or you might experience yourself out of body and enter a different dimension or see a being take charge. “If there’s anything that I’m most excited about, it’s that I had always felt there was a presence, a force that was guiding this whole thing and managing this transition. I named it the Conductor.” The Conductor shows up in the book several times, including during the passing of Peters’s own father, which can be seen as serendipity, or a gift, coming as it did shortly before the manuscript was due. It probably helped, too, that Peters was able to train his parents in the protocols. His story becomes a moving finale for At Heaven’s Door.
Ending the Silence
The book aims chiefly to end the silence around the shared-death experience. According to Peters, “If there’s anything you can’t argue with, it’s in the data. I am an advocate for the normalization of these experiences and the inclusion of them in our end-of-life care and health care in general — across-the-board knowledge and preparation for them. If someone knows that death is coming, when a dying process begins, they should know about these experiences.” Laughing, he adds, “Then I won’t have to work as hard to advocate for this.”
After Rod Lathim wrote the play Unfinished Business, about his shared-death experience with his mother and the many, many people who showed up, he became friends with Peters. His story is in the archives. “I produced the play three different times,” Lathim says. “After every show, people would come up to me and say, ‘Can I call you? … Can I email you? … I need to tell you about something.…’ I’ve had so many people say to me, ‘I have never told this to anyone before, but I think you are going to get it.’
“I am pleased he has done this book,” he adds, “because I think that little by little, people are becoming aware. It’s not something Western medicine is embracing yet. Science is not embracing it yet, but probably in our lifetimes, we will be able to document and acknowledge some of the realities we can’t see or touch…. And someday, those people who roll their eyes are going to go, ‘OH MY GOD!’”
I will admit that the two workshops changed me, shifting my perspective on death, demystifying it, and making it less taboo and more intriguing. The stories in the book reaffirmed my feelings about the inevitable coming of death, making me less averse, less fearful, less repudiating, and more hopeful, more ready to embrace the awesome. Unquestionably, I regret that I had not learned of these phenomena before my mother died. I believe it would have made a difference in our mutual misunderstandings and our ability to comfort each other. What an adventure we could have had! I console myself, however, with the certainty that there will be other deaths in my life to do better.