What happens after we die?
Let’s be honest. Death sucks. Anyway, that is what most of us think.
Certainly, no one wants to lose someone they love. And no one wants to die. Yet, we will all lose someone and eventually we all die.
This inescapable truth often makes me recall my mom’s own words when she was being treated for stage four cancer. Shortly after her diagnosis, with raw clarity and tears in her eyes, she told me, “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to.” At the time, I was 28 years old. Her words hit me hard. They jolted me into the reality that neither I, nor anyone else, could change or control the inevitable outcome of her disease. The only thing we could control was to make sure that she would die in a way that was caring.
But the comfort of caring was not enough for me. Where would death take her? Would she be okay? Would she still sense her family’s love? Mom’s death coupled with the death of my first partner raised questions that now, 23 years later, only seem answerable with more questions. What really happens when we die?
According to a highly respected neurosurgeon and author of Proof of Heaven, Dr. Eben Alexander, we humans become reconnected with the divine source of the universe itself. Having had his own near death experience, Alexander says he journeyed beyond this world and encountered an angelic being who guided him into the deepest realms of a super-physical existence.
I’ve been at the bedside of someone who saw angels in the corner of the room just days before taking a last breath. I’ve been privy to another person’s celestial vision just hours before their heart stopped beating. And, I’ve been given signs and messages from beyond . . . usually in the form of an uncanny coincidence that could not have been a coincidence. I’ve also been party to scores of similar experiences that hospice workers have with their own patients.
There are many religious traditions which claim that there is an afterlife of some sort, that death is not the end, but a transition. In some cultures the afterlife is seen as being similar to life, while in others there are several possibilities based on a person’s actions in this life.
Many indigenous people of the Americas believe that the soul goes on a journey where it will be welcomed by ancestors. Some view death as a transition between two worlds. Judaism believes in an afterlife but with little dogma. The Jewish afterlife is called Olam Ha-Ba which means “the world to come.” Traditional Judaism firmly believes that death is not the end of human existence.
Christian beliefs about the afterlife vary between denominations and individual Christians, but the vast majority of Christians believe in some kind of heaven, in which the deceased enjoy the presence of God and loved ones for eternity.
Hinduism supports the idea of reincarnation based on karma. The three types of karma include past lives, the present life, and the lives not yet lived. This karma determines in what entity someone will be born in their next life. Similarly, many Buddhists don’t see death as an ending, but as a beginning to a new life through reincarnation.
Our Muslim brothers and sisters believe that the present life is a trial in preparation for the next realm of existence. When a Muslim dies, he or she is washed and wrapped in a clean white cloth and buried after a special prayer, preferably the same day. They consider this a final service that they can do for their relatives and an opportunity to remember that their own existence here on earth is brief.
Even many atheists, or folks who might not identify with any religious tradition, believe in a spiritual realm and an afterlife. In a recent Pew Research Center analysis of generational differences and religious views, researchers found that while millennials are much more likely than previous generations to identify as nonreligious, two-thirds of them believe in heaven.
Perhaps the common thread that strings all faiths and all people together is this: There is nothing after life, because life never ends. It just goes higher and higher. The soul is liberated from the body and returns closer to its source.
This idea is best captured by a current 92-year-old Yolo Hospice patient named Doris Blossom. She lives in Davis and recently shared her thoughts on life and death with Micah Murdock, her hospice chaplain. Printed below are her thoughts.
“When we die, what happens to us? As a child, I was told we went to heaven or hell. Not by my parents, but somehow that idea came through. I didn’t accept that idea, because it was too vague. So now, at 90-plus, the question again arises. And I think I’m satisfied with the idea of recycling.
Our bodies, whether burned or buried, go back into nature to be used by nature as it pleases . . . to feed creatures or to enrich the soil. But what happens to the soul? We don’t even know what the soul is. I think the soul is everything that is important, but not physical. It’s our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and connections.
Does the soul belong to the body or does the body belong to the soul? We need this body, perhaps as servant to the soul. Still, this feeling of separation persists. It seems that over time our body ages and weakens, but our soul becomes stronger and more active.
Eventually, the soul is restored and ready to be used again. Time and place may not matter. Perhaps not even gender matters. Was I once a cat in Russia? Or, maybe something not yet created in a distant future. Well, it is fun to speculate but hard to write about. We can only deal with the now, and now is a good time to rest some more.”
Blossom, originally from New England, is a retired social worker, Brahms cantata singer, mother of three and a cherished grandmother.