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How Death Makes Life Possible

Using story, media, and educational programs to transform fear of death into an inspiration for living and dying well.

Photo of Marilyn Schlitz, PhD
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In the course of creating my film and book, Death Makes Life Possible, I interviewed more than 100 people. One was Lee Lipsenthal. This is his story:

Lee Lipsenthal was fifty-three years old when his doctor told him he was dying. He’d been living with esophageal cancer for about two years. After a dance with remission, the disease had returned full force. As a physician who was married to a physician, Lee knew that allopathic medicine had run its course. Dying was now what he was doing with his life. While his days were ebbing, he was living each moment as if it were his last.

For a decade, Lee had served as the research director for Dean Ornish’s Preventive Medicine Research Institute and had also served as president of the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine. Despite his scienti c training, he held a strong metaphysical view that guided him toward his death. rough a deep meditation practice and shamanic journey work that expanded his sense of self, he understood that his worldview structured what he believed was coming next.

Lee and I were friends and colleagues for more than a decade. During our heartfelt talks over the years, he reported remembering signi cant, spontaneous past-life experiences that connected him to God, Jesus, and Buddha. When asked how these past-life experi- ences with religious gures informed his experience with cancer and dying, he explained:

"There’s a big story there. . . . At one level, it gives me a sense of peace that this may not be all there is. But on the other level, it’s just a small part of why I’m feeling well in the process of supposedly dying. e other pieces to me are a deep appreciation for the
life I’ve had. I’ve had a blast. I’m a music fanatic, and I’ve hung out with and played guitar with some of my favorite rock ’n’ roll heroes. I’ve had a really good ride in my fun life. . . . I’ve had work that has been fun, challenging, and creative. I have thirty years of a marriage to someone I’m still deeply in love with, two kids who are really wonderful people. So if I were to die now, that’s ne. I don’t really need more of that.

That’s one reason I’m at peace. The other reason is I truly know that I have no  control of whether I live or die . . . so the combination of accepting a lack of control over my own death and a very deep gratitude for the life I’ve already had is my real reason for being at peace. I look at people who have survived a major health crisis, and they’ve transformed dramatically through that crisis. Is that bigger than losing your body? I don’t know.

Lee’s worldview allowed him to feel a fluid connection between living and dying. It was a belief structure that gave him a sense of hope and possibility. Given his own experiences with past lives, I asked him what he thought might be coming next, after the death of his body. “We are all limited by our own experiences and how we interpret them,” he explained to me. Such interpretations or world- views may be shaped by our parents, our education, our religion, what we read. And, for Lee, they were also informed by experiences of past lives and mystical states:


I think we come back into life for new and different experiences. e purpose or the meaning of that . . . I’m not going to pretend that I honestly know. I think that we progress over time in our multiple lives, we change . . . we learn from these past lives, and we become . . . let’s say, better, deeper, shinier. at’s my belief structure. I’ll try to let you know when I get to the other side—that’s all I can say.


As Lee demonstrates, our views on life, death, and the afterlife are informed by diverse and sometimes competing worldviews. Reli- gious beliefs often shape our views of death and what happens after. And there is an evolving spirituality that combines traditional religious elements, emerging insights from science, and personal practices to help address core existential questions that influence people’s beliefs about life after death. 

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Making peace with death informs how we can live our lives to the fullest, transforming fear into inspiration.

Tell us about your work experience:

I am a social anthropologist who has been studying consciousness, worldviews and healing and creating educational programs for more than three decades.

If you participated in an End of Life Storytelling Event, tell us which Chapter or city you came from:

Petaluma, California

1 comment

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Photo of Kathy Douglas

Marilyn - Again I applaud your leadership in bring this topic forward. It is a topic most would like to avoid, but avoiding it does not make it go away. If we can get to know death, embrace it as a natural part of this life and find some peace with death, we can live life more deeply, more fully, and with expanded appreciation. Please continue to invite us into the conversation. Continue to help us have the courage to brave this exploration and the transformation it offers.