Someone recently asked me: “What do you think happens when we die?”
I know, I know—lately I’ve been focused on mortality and heavier, quasi-theological questions. I’ve written recent columns and examining the .
But one of my columns prompted a friend to ask about my thoughts on what she called my “eternal perspective.”
Her question stopped me in my tracks because, quite honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever given it much thought.
At least not for myself. I’ve never focused on what will be for me after my life ends; I’ve always tried to put my efforts on living in the here and now (whether we’re talking material—helping me and mine; or the profound—helping others).
But it’s the very recent story of Ben Breedlove, a Texas teenager, that’s made me think about it a little more carefully.
Ben Breedlove. Breed Love. Doesn’t his name just make you feel good?
Ben turned 18 last year. He made a lot of videos that he posted on his own YouTube channel. Some were sweet talk-show-type short episodes, advising kids his age about dating and relationships. With his cute, Justin Bieber-ish looks, he sweetly told girls who wanted to ask out boys to “be self-confident,” and he encouraged kids to look beyond appearance and focus more on personality. Innocent musings of someone just on the verge of adulthood
The week before Christmas he posted a 2-part video titled "This is My Story." It was his video autobiography. In it, he’s seen revealing a series of flashcards that tell about his life—mostly about living with a heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, in which a portion of the heart muscle becomes inexplicably thickened. It can cause sudden cardiac death in all ages groups, and is often linked to the sudden death of many young athletes.
With occasional smiles, and an easygoing teenage boyishness, Ben appears on screen in his video, methodically holding up cards that describe what has happened during his life living with the disease.
In his own words, he says he cheated death three times.
Once, when he was four; another time, during a routine tonsillectomy, his heart stopped and doctors had to revive him; a third time in the hallways at school, he collapsed, and for three minutes his heart and breathing stopped and paramedics needed to shock him. It happened just a week or so before he put up the life-story video.
Each time, when death came calling, Ben said, “No.”
He describes his memory of seeing a bright light above him at age 4 and how it made him smile and feel safe. During the recent December event, he had a vision of being in a white room, “with that same peaceful feeling I had when I was 4.”
Whether or not your faith teaches you to have faith in the concept of afterlife, the video is reassuring to watch him have faith. For this 18 year old to have a wise-beyond-his-years peaceful calm about facing the uncertainty gave me a sense of perspective on the concept of perhaps not afterlife, but of the state of “before dying.”
He’s even funny talking about it. Ben’s boyish humor is evident as he describes how his favorite rapper Kid Cudi was with him in his vision, although it wasn’t clear why. They were wearing suits and he boasts, “damn, we look good!” His smile throughout is simply pure.
It was clear in all of Ben’s videos, and especially this one, that while he was experienced with the confessional medium of online videos, he was still just a kid, albeit one coping with the stresses of serious health issues. In one earlier video, he mentioned going to the homecoming dance, studying for the SATs…and a new medication that he had started that made him feel awful.
But his “Life Story” was different. It was something altogether ethereal. He recalled that during his school hall collapse, throughout his vision he had a feeling of being proud of himself and everything he’d done in his entire life. “It was the BEST feeling,” he wrote. “I wish I NEVER left.”
Sadly, on Christmas day, just a few days after the video was posted, death—the fourth time it called on Ben Breedlove—wouldn’t take no for an answer.
We now know that Ben’s autobiographical video was his final act of courage and mature insight. It’s something that has given a sense of peace and comfort to millions of people of people who watched it after it went viral.
Ben answers his own question that he poses at the end of his video—“Do you believe in Angels or God?”—with an “I do.”
I’m still grappling with what I believe about both, in the traditional sense of spirit and soul and religious belief. But I do believe in the lasting impact of goodness toward others and the message of hope, belief and peace, and am grateful for people like Ben Breedlove, who perhaps was a different kind of angel. Whether you see him as an earthly one or a religious one, in some ways it really doesn’t matter.
For an 18 year old boy who lived a life too short, who helped a lot of us feel simply reassured about being here, he certainly lived up to his name.