Life coaches help people actualize personal and professional goals, supporting their clients as they navigate through all of the obstacles life throws at them. Death coaches play a very different role, one that doesn’t begin until after your heart stops beating.
Dying is not easy, but accepting death is even harder — that’s where I come in. I work with the recently deceased, supporting them as they adjust to the afterlife. It’s a difficult job, quite dangerous too, but I love every moment like you wouldn’t believe. When you face death every day as I do, life becomes that much sweeter.
Gareth was my first ‘troublesome’ client, all the others to that point had been passive and eager to cross over. A shy and sensitive boy, Gareth had been beaten to death by a group of budding roughnecks itching for any reason to fight. On a sweltering summer day, Gareth stumbled upon their hangout and witnessed things he shouldn’t have. He became a liability, and those low-lives decided his life wasn’t worth their freedom. They dumped his body unceremoniously in a thicket of thorny branches, later stumbled upon by a pair of birdwatchers.
Upon reaching the other side, Gareth became something else entirely. The brutality and indignity of his passing warped his mind, and Gareth transformed into the darkness that had consumed him. His spirit was vicious, a rabid dog that would attack anyone that came near. He’d possessed several young men, injured a dozen more, and terrorized the community he once called home.
Almost nine years to the day after Gareth’s murder, I arrived in a sleepy Wisconsin hamlet situated near the Illinois border. The dead can’t ask for help, they don’t even know they need it a majority of the time. Death coaches are assigned to cases by supervisors, so we seek our clients out, not the other way around.
“Room for one, smoking if you got it.”
A husky, unsmiling woman sat behind a weathered front desk, magazine in hand. She hoarsely dragged the butt of a cigarette, grinding it into an already filled ashtray.
“All our rooms are smoking honey, ain’t it a delight?” She laughed dryly, breaking into a mucus-filled cough, “That’ll be $65 a night, plus tax.”
“Great, I shouldn’t be here for more than a week. I assume that won’t be an issue?” I replied politely
“You can stay as long as your credit card keeps swiping, that’s our policy.” Her words echoed as I walked into the empty hallway of the motel.
The rooms of the Red Cabin Inn reeked of desperation and broken dreams. Shockingly outdated decor, coupled with poor sanitation and upkeep, made it a particularly distasteful stay. Unfortunately, death coaches don’t earn much and we pay out of pocket, so I take what I can get.
Opening my briefcase, I pinned a series of newspaper clippings and frayed photographs to a corkboard I had mounted on the wall. Flakes of wallpaper cascades down as I repositioned the board, ensuring I could see it perfectly from the thin, lightly-stained mattress.
A timeline of Gareth’s life, and death, appeared before me. He was a lonely, bespeckled child, I couldn’t find a single image of him smiling or with friends. Gareth was raised by a single mother who looked like she’d stepped right out of American Gothic. An exceedingly modest and religious woman, she taught Gareth to deeply fear the secular world.
A mugshot of the young man convicted of his murder transitioned the timeline to the next phase of Gareth’s journey, his death. Of the eight boys involved in the assault, only the oldest would face serious charges — and he only got ten years. The others received lenient sentences as first-time offenders in the juvenile justice system. They were remorseless, and after being released, the younger boys used his death as a badge of honor to enhance their criminal activities.
The next photo of import was a blood-spattered crime scene, four young men massacred in a secluded, wooded area. Faces contorted in unnatural positions, puncture wounds and shattered bones indicated a long period of torture before death. Four others survived the attack, but had been horribly disfigured and remanded indefinitely to mental institutions.
I’m not justifying his actions, but that should have been the ‘justice’ Gareth’s spirit needed to rest. Instead, it had quite the opposite effect. His madness only grew, and the violence steadily worsened. Gareth lashed out impulsively, preying on those who entered the woods at night.
Rehabilitation is always possible, or so I believe, even in cases like Gareth’s. Many in my industry would disagree with this mindset, arguing that spirits like Gareth are no longer deserving of redemption; I’d gotten into more than one heated argument debating this issue. Their truth was impossible for me to accept, because if Gareth and those like him were beyond saving, then so was I.
For several days, I stalked the people who had known Gareth. His mother, school teachers, playground bullies, and the police who’d discovered his body. At first, I watched from afar, but once I became comfortable enough, I initiated a more direct approach.
“Mam, I don’t mean to be a bother, but you look like a righteous, god-fearing woman; not like the other scoundrels in this town. Would you be kind enough to help another righteous soul on his path to salvation?” Laying on a southern drawl as thick as molasses, I tipped my hat to Gareth’s mother.
A thin smile crept across her lips, “You must be a soothsayer, or maybe I’m being modest. Bethany Tilaway, pleased to meet you.” She extended a gloved hand, curtseying slightly.
“Nathaniel Peters, and the pleasure is all mine.” Only half that sentence was true.
Under the guise of searching for an adequate house of worship, I asked Ms. Tilaway if she’d be willing to take me to her church; she said yes without skipping a beat. I knew that she’d grown up in southern Kentucky, the daughter of a strict Baptist preacher. To ensure her cooperation, I emulated the man she admired most — her father.
“Your last name sounds familiar, you wouldn’t by any chance have family in Kentucky?” I asked unassumingly, laying the bait.
“Oh my, why yes I do. Were you acquainted with my family? There’s not many of us left these days, so I assume this was a long time ago.” Her voice faltered slightly.
“There was a preacher named Tilaway who I met as a young man, he completely changed my life. I was living an unrepentant life of sin before I met him, but he cast the demons out and turned me into the man of god you see before you today. Is that preacher one of your kin?”
Ms. Tilaway stared at me with admiration and pride, a bright spark bubbling in her eyes, “That’s my Daddy, I just can’t believe this, but you’re talking about my Daddy,” her voice was shaky.
“God is good, God is great!” I exclaimed excitedly, “Ms. Tilaway, do you see what is happening here? God has brought us together, this is no coincidence, this is divine fate.”
I admittedly felt a tinge of remorse, I was manipulating this woman through her faith and reverence for her late father. Every word out of my mouth had been carefully scripted and rehearsed, down to the accent. Motives aside, I was using this woman, even if it was to save her son.
“May I be so bold as to ask you a question?” I asked respectfully as we reached the church.
“I don’t see why not,” she answered with a hint of excitement.
“I’m a naturalist, and I’m here for work. I’m studying a rare species of nocturnal insects native to the surrounding area, and I know this sounds odd, but I believe God wants you to be part of this. I don’t know why, but it feels like he’s commanding it.”
Her smile grew wider, “As my Daddy once said, ‘You either walk with the righteous, or you don’t walk at all.’”
I grinned in return, knowing my plan was coming together, “I’ll take that as a yes. Meet me here at eight, I’ll see you then.”
Gareth’s mother, if nothing else, was prompt — arriving exactly at the scheduled time. A grey shawl draped over her shoulder, she shivered slightly with the cool breeze. I’d been waiting for an hour, mindlessly flipping through the Bible on a nearby park bench.
“Good evening Ms. Tilaway, thank you for your timeliness.” Raising from the bench, I bowed like a true southern gentleman would.
“Good evening to you Mr. Peters, shall we go?”
I led her to the edge of town, rambling about biblical revelations and the hedonistic secularism of young people; I was feeding red meat to the lion. She hung on my every word, not knowing that I’d scanned through all of the sermons her father had published online, regurgitating them as best I could.
As we entered the woods, her mood noticeably shifted. Ms. Tilaway was on edge, anxiously biting her lip. She had no way of knowing that we were headed to the site of her son’s murder, it was too dark, but she was clearly uncomfortable with the woods.
“Are you alright? You seem a little apprehensive.” Following a mulched path, I looked at Gareth’s mother with a look of contrived concern.
“I’m fine, it’s just cold,” she replied unconvincingly.
The woods were deathly quiet. Ms. Tilaway may not have noticed, but I was acutely aware of the deafening silence. As we neared the meadow where Gareth’s life had ended, the air grew noticeably colder. Black clouds rolled in unexpectedly from the east, blanketing the stars with their embrace.
Gareth’s mother stopped in her tracks as the meadow came into view. You could see the realization cross her face, the grim understanding of where I’d taken her. She turned her head towards me, eyes furrowed in anger.
“Who are you? Who are you really?” Hatred simmering just below the surface, Ms. Tilaway backed away from me.
“I’m a death coach, and I’m here to help your son find peace. I’m truly and sincerely sorry for lying to you, but this can’t be done without you.” An ominous cracking sound echoed through the woods as tendrils of thick fog wrapped around mossy bark.
“You’re no Christian, you’re a vessel of satan! This is black, devil magic and I will have no part in it. My son is with his grandparents in Heaven, how dare you say otherwise!” As she raged at me, she didn’t notice the fog take shape and darken. Like a sculpture being modeled out of a block of marble, a figure emerged.
“Mother? Can you hear me, Mother?” A disembodied voice floated through the trees. Ms. Tilaway recoiled, the color draining from her face.
“No, please god no…” She was shaken, muttering to herself.
“Don’t be afraid. That isn’t a demon or black magic, it’s your son. With you here, he’s as harmless as he was in life. Your presence can bring him peace, he just needs a little convincing from me.” Taking on a comforting time, I caught up to Ms. Tilaway.
The most effective method to pacify spirits is to introduce a cherished person or object into their environment. When I was being trained, I’d seen the humanity return to even the most demented souls when this technique was employed. Confident that I’d neutralized the danger, I placed a comforting hand on Gareth’s mother’s back. Immediately, she pushed the hand away and began hyperventilating.
“You don’t understand. I know it’s my son, that’s why I’m so frightened. Lord help me, do you know what you’ve done?”
A fierce wind whipped around us, picking up dirt and dead leaves. The fog solidified and a bloodied Gareth came into view, floating just above the ground.
“It’s so good to see you Mother, I never thought you’d come this far into the woods. I thought you knew better,” Gareth broke into a devilish, toothy grin. His pupils burned red, sunk into pools of black.
Ms. Tilaway bolted, fleeing as fast as her chicken legs could take her. Before she’d made it even ten feet, a vine burst through the ground and wrapped tightly around her ankles. She fell roughly to the floor, her head thumping against gravel.
“Where are you going? There’s so much we need to talk about.” Gareth oscillated between several octaves.
“Talk? We have nothing to talk about. You were a monster Gareth, the whole town knew it. If they didn’t kill you, you would have killed them, and many more along with them. If you want me to beg, to ask for forgiveness, then you’re out of luck. I regret nothing, in fact, I’d send you into the woods all over again if I had had the chance.” She was filled with poison, spitting it through pursed lips.
Gareth’s limbs elongated, twisting into thick, thorny vines of fog. “I was what you raised me to be. All I knew was violence, torment, and abuse — but you called it love. Well this is what your love created.”
With sickening speed, Gareth impaled his mother’s knee. She howled in pain, blood pooling at her feet. “I never loved you. You’re father was a devil and you were his seed. How could I ever love that?” Despite the awful hate she was spewing, I was admittedly impressed by Ms. Tilaway’s defiance and strength. After the initial shock of impalement, she had quickly composed herself, a fire of her own burning behind her eyes.
An entanglement of vines burst from Gareth’s chest, wrapping around his mother like a horde of anacondas. They slithered and squeezed around her body until they swallowed her whole. I watched intently as the vines traveled back to Gareth, absorbing his mother along with them.
“So this is why he’s still here,” I mused to myself.
When I brought Ms. Tilaway into the forest it wasn’t my intention to make her a sacrificial lamb, but fate is unavoidable. Although I wouldn’t call it justice, at least not anymore, I also wouldn’t call what Gareth did that night unjust.
As soon as Gareth fully absorbed his mother, muffling her tortures cries, his body began to decay. Flesh and muscle detached from bone, falling to the ground before dissolving into puffs of ash. As he returned to dust, Gareth glanced briefly at me. His soul at peace, he nodded silently as he faded away with the wind.
I wasn’t sure how to feel, I still don’t. Morality and truth are frustratingly ambiguous, and if there is a god, his ambivalence is telling. This wasn’t a happy ending, but I’d completed my assignment nonetheless. As I typed up the summary report, I made sure to include a few strategic omissions that would keep my superiors off my ass.
Death coaches are not the judge, the jury, or executioner. We’re not the lawyers or families in the stands watching testimony between bated breath. All we do is unlock the doors to the courthouse, and what happens after that, is for the universe to decide.
Truthfully, as is life, death just isn’t fair.