What Happens When You Die? Thoughts on our Consciousness

At some point in our lives, we come to terms with our own mortality. Whether it’s the death of family member or loved one, or the simple realization that we will not live forever, death eventually becomes a thought that every human attempts to grasp. The thought of death is both fascinating and scary, an eerie blend of mystery and possibility.

As a child I was raised Catholic, not under strict house rules, but more so by attending classes every Sunday. I became familiar with sin, hell, and heaven at a young age. As I grew older, I began to question everything I learned, and could not agree with the many questionable teachings, or lessons, my teachers taught every year. “If a man goes to confession after many years, clearing himself of his sins, it will be as if he never sinned before. If he leaves the church then, and is hit by a bus and killed, he will go straight to heaven!” Or possibly, “Missing church is a mortal sin. Eating meat on a  Friday- is a mortal sin!” Although equating missing church to murder was a bit strange, the concept of “loving and respecting your neighbors” and “not judging others as that is God’s work” were something I could agree with.

Apart from this, the thought of heaven is really appealing. Who wouldn’t want to go to Heaven and be surrounded by their loved ones? The thought of getting to run into the arms of your life partner, to see your mother and father, or grandparents again, is really nice. It’s like the ending of Titanic, when Rose is reunited with Jack upon her death- the whole Titanic goes back to a time when it was full of life, thriving, and when they were both happiest. It’s a really nice thought. However, as idealistic as it is, my thoughts of death place me in two strange places, conflicted by my reasoning and my idealism.

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Credit: Deviantart

Reasoning with what death must be like, means that odds are, death will be as we were before we were born. We really can’t remember our lives before our births, because we did not yet exist. Since, for the thousands of years before our births, we were not conscious beings (at least that I know of) we cannot comprehend what not existing is, since for all our lives we have only known existence. Humans like to have happy endings- we all want that Titanic scene where when we die, we are reunited with those we love, are young again, and happy. It’s a nice, warming thought to have, but I think it’s a thought we try to convince ourselves has some substance to it because it sounds nice, rather than facing the potential reality that we simply cease to be, and lose everything we know in the process.

This has many implications in itself- if we cease to be, it can make us either feel that every moment on Earth must be cherished and spent well as we only have now, or that on the flip side, nothing we do matters since someday we will be gone and our lives will remain virtually meaningless in the grand scheme of the cosmic universe.

Many people fear death, because it’s hard to imagine ceasing to be from a perspective of someone who is conscious. When I think about death, for example, I become very sad. Not at the thought of dying, but at the thought of no longer being with those I love. The thought that I, someday, will not even know or remember the joys I’ve had while alive, the memories of a life spent with my future wife, the memories of growing up with my parents, brother, and grandmother…all of these things that we cherish, simply not meaning anything someday to you? However, that is also because I, and in general we, are viewing death as people who only understand what it means to be conscious, to be alive. It is hard to imagine ceasing to be from this perspective, as we interpret our emotions and lives around existence. If we cease to exist, we will not have knowledge of our lives here on Earth, of any of the things we love and cherish most. In death, we simply are no more. Without brain waves, without consciousness, we do not have the capability to continue remembering our lives, our loved ones, or ourselves. Without the brain, we do not have any recollection of the lives we have lived. All that will remain are the memories you’ve left on Earth, with those who loved you and keep you alive in their conscious memories.

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Credit: The Illuminerdy

Religiously, it makes sense as to why people believe in an afterlife, after stating the above. The Egyptians often took their earthly possessions into their tombs for when they would be needed in the beyond. Humans have always found comfort in believing in a contingency, where although we cease to exist in the physical world, we will continue to exist in a beyond, modeled much like our physical universe in death. This same behavior is seen in Catholics who believe in Heaven- it is a place beyond their wildest expectations, full of love, family, and beauty. It’s a place of eternal happiness. But being consciously aware that we are with family and loved ones from the physical world there, reinforces the desire to link what we understand of our lives here on Earth, with an afterlife. It is no different than bringing your prized possessions, wife, or servants with you into your tomb- you want what you have in the physical world, what you hold dearest, to be with you in the next spiritual world, because we can only understand a spiritual world as being something relatable to things that connected us to others on Earth. At the same time, this also insinuates that we, as humans, like to believe in existence in an afterlife. Although we would be dead, our souls in this case, would still be existing- the afterlife allows us to continue existing without our bodies, yet allows us to retain the information, the identity we had, the memories we’ve shared, from Earth.

In this sense, religion eases a lot of uncertainty about death, promising a world better than the life you may have, or promising one just as great. It’s comforting to believe that you will be reunited with those you love, and get to spend an eternity with them. It’s nice to think you can pray to someone and connect with a deity that you will someday come to know. Almost every society that I have researched has had some form of spiritual belief system that connects humans with a greater beyond, or that views death as the next stage in the life cycle rather than an end. My favorite courses were centered around Native American culture and belief systems-many tribes felt strong connections with nature and the cosmos, and each tribe had unique creators, gods, and goddesses. Their beliefs are similar to Greek Gods, Christian Gods, or Jewish Gods, in that they all serve a purpose of explaining the things we do not know. Greek Gods were a way for ancient people to understand their physical world- they could explain lightning, storms, and the seasons with their mythologies. Figures such as Jesus or Old Man Coyote, help us cope with understanding creation, life lessons, and even death. Anyone can learn valuable lessons from any of these stories, and share a mutual perspective in terms of spirituality. Many civilizations and religions over time have attempted to explain death, and make it digestible. It’s a complicated topic that we likely will never have an answer for- and a part of me wonders if it is better off that we do not know.

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Credit: Huffington Post

The idealistic part of my mind suggests that there will be some after life and that we simply could not cease to be. This part of me is fueled by my desire, as a human, to continue existing, to continue being in some form. To be with those I love, to have them with me forever. Wouldn’t it be great, if you could explore the universe forever? By the side of someone you love so deeply? I don’t believe in a heaven, or a hell. I don’t really believe in a designated afterlife. As a kid, apart from assuming death was just like closing your eyes, a huge part of me hoped, and in some ways continues to hope, that when you pass on, your version of eternity comes true. Talk about idealism? In all seriousness, this thought has occurred to me that maybe we just exist eternally in a paradise that we build for ourselves. If people believe in Heaven, or believe in some spiritual realm, it will be for them. I’ve always liked the thought of getting to explore the vastness of space with the people I love in an afterlife, although the absence of consciousness and simply ceasing to be is just as comforting.

I think this idea of the afterlife could blend into some parallel universe concepts that I’ve read about in the past. Although I don’t believe my concept coincides with the concepts of parallel worlds, as usually they are fairly complex and insinuate you are still alive in other worlds and in some sense, will never die, I almost wonder if when you pass on, you go into your own dimension of this afterlife you’ve always wanted. One theory of interest, although I cannot remember where I read this article, is that as our brain dies and releases chemicals, the death process could alter our perception- our brains perception- of time. Although a death may take a moment, our brains could perceive the process as infinite- giving us the visions many have after near death experiences.

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Credit: WherestheJump

However, with the discussion of death, one must ask where animals come into play in the afterlife. Even as humans, we tend to forget that we are just animals too. Animals can feel sadness, pain, happiness, and fear. They form strong social bonds with one another, many species exhibit homosexuality, and species bond over becoming families. Animals have unique personalities; some are obnoxious, others are quiet. Some love to exercise, others like to sleep. We are not different at all, in many ways from them. We are all existing, breathing, thinking, and dreaming together. We all die at some point too. Animals recognize death, to some degree too- have you ever witnessed a dog upset with the passing of their owner? A pet upset with the passing of another pet?  Although animals understand death, and can sense it, do they have the same capabilities to analyze their physical world and question what happens beyond death? Or, do they simply turn a blind eye to what happens beyond- if their brains are more primitive, as ours once were (or possibly are underneath it all; all the class lectures about the subconscious and ego are re-emerging!) is it not possible for them to comprehend death as a natural process- or because they may be more ‘primitive’,are animals more in touch with death and afterlives than we are, since many animals continue to live based on instinct; something that many humans are unable to connect with?

Rolling with these questions, one has to ask; since all living things are one in the same, if an afterlife does not exist for animals, how can one exist for us? Despite the fact that humans can question and ponder our world and world’s beyond, there is no real difference that makes humans greater or less than a pet rabbit. If we have souls, so do they. If they do not, we should not either. This issue puzzled me a lot as a kid, because it made little sense that humans are the only exception in the afterlife formula. Animals would be right there if this is the case- but what would an afterlife be for a duck, or a koala? A big pond, a giant eucalyptus tree?  Would they want to be with their families and loved ones? Would they just continue on existing, not recognizing that they are dead? Had humans not evolved, what would our afterlife be if we had one? Would we still have as strong of an attachment to our families, spouses, friends, etc.?

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Source: Giphy

This is why discussing animals is so important to me when thinking about death and the afterlife- if in a primitive state of mind humans did not have the capacity to question death and create an afterlife,  would they just simply die without comprehending death? Although ancient civilizations have always had some form of burial ritual and tombs, is it out of paying respect to the deceased or because even in a primitive state of mind they recognize this loss?

Even in death, would humans and animals alike be able to comprehend where they are, or understand that they are dead? 

We associate everything based on the face that we see in the mirror, and associate our existence heavily around this person. “How was I born into this body, how did I exist as this person, and not someone else?”Our brains are our identities; our dreams, thoughts, and feelings. All of our memories, jokes, and perceptions of others around us. Without your brain, you do not exist. This is why, when you are born, you see out of your own eyes, because the brain is you. Later on, we associate ‘you’ with the image in the mirror and the photos on your wall. Your brain is yours alone, and your body is the genetic make up of your parents who created you. No one else could’ve been you.

This is why I get so mixed up on consciousness when one is dead- we associate ourselves with what we see, rather than what we really are- a brain, as all animals do. Two koalas are not going to be sitting in a tree, thinking to themselves, ‘we’re both just a brain in a cute fluffy body’. But after death, how is it that without a brain, we are able to identify ourselves? Even if we have a soul, how are we able to differentiate between ourselves, our loved ones, and the rest of the world? Unless it’s just something we can naturally do, I don’t understand how we are supposed to reunite with one another- be it two humans, or two dinosaurs. Maybe if you share a bond strong enough, be it family, spouse, or friends, you can find your way. Death could also easily be a place where all laws and understanding, from a human standpoint, make zero sense. Maybe anything goes, and therefore all of our ‘logical’ reasonings, such as ceasing to be, make no sense in the grand scheme of the universe!

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Credit: Huffington Post

This leads me to the brief discussion of ghosts- animals always seem to be able to sense things, some trait that most humans have lost. As someone who believes in ghosts and the supernatural realm, where do they come into play when discussing death? How can there be no afterlife if ghosts are real? I understand this is a conflict in my reasoning of death- believing we just cease to be. It doesn’t make sense how a ghost could continue existing, as a spirit, here on Earth, if there isn’t an afterlife. Some people relate it to the energy, the fact that we are all made of the same matter, as it cannot be created or destroyed. In some respects, we existed long before we were born. The atoms, molecules, stardust, and matter that has created each and every one of us, existed billions of years ago and will exist for billions more. Maybe since energy cannot be created or destroyed, we are never truly gone. In this sense, I believe ghosts could continue existing, which explains why electromagnetic waves can detect them. At this point, you are an energy frequency as a ghost, maybe in a different dimension, or maybe in the same environment we all physically inhabit.

The only issue I have with this theory, is after so many people have lived and continue to live on this Earth, how is it possible that all these spirits could be here? Do they visit? Do some decide to stay? Do you, as simple energy, retain your identity? Do you even understand what has happened to you or who you are? Or are ‘you’ just an illusion, created by energy that may manifest a certain way to resemble a person from the past?

It’s not entirely far fetched that you could assume prior to birth, there was another universe that you return back to, or potentially, some place similar to an afterlife. However, this insinuates that you are existent prior to death- and if your parents haven’t conceived you, or were not born yet, how is it possible that you can exist elsewhere? Maybe there is some strange way we can’t explain, or comprehend, that would make this possible. After all, if we are all just energy, it’s entirely possible we all exist simultaneously since energy cannot be created or destroyed- so we are simply buzzing about, existing side by side, until our matter comes to creation and we physically manifest, similar to how ghosts can just come and go. Maybe it explains nothing and I’m just losing my mind at 4 am on a Thursday morning.

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Credit: Tumblr

The good thing about death, is that you’ll never know when it happens to you, unless there is an afterlife where you can recognize that you are a spirit and no longer a part of the physical world. The only ones who will know are the loved ones you are leaving behind.  If you’ve lived your life well, it will not matter if you cease to exist or find the afterlife of your dreams; either way you will leave the Earth complete. The hardest way to grasp death, is to understand that although we can think about it, worry about it, and even fear it, we will never know when it happens to us. We spend so much time wondering, thinking, worrying. What many of us fail to understand, is it will be unprecedented. We will not know all that we are leaving behind, all that we have done, who we were, when it strikes. Although knowing all we love and hold dear could disappear in an instant, we will never know what we had at this point, so it will be as if we lost nothing.

It’s still strange. Both considering it, and thinking about it. But there is some comfort in knowing you won’t know. That those you love will not know when it is their time. If there is an afterlife, at least there is another stage in our lives, in the beyond, for us to continue together. But if there isn’t, at least we had a life. At least you were able to grow, to learn, to love, and experience the world here.

If you have other thoughts or feelings about death, from any perspective- religious, non-religious, etc. feel free to drop them in the comments. I’m genuinely interested in the concept and think it’s something where the answer will always elude humanity. Even if science continues on, I wonder if we will ever be able to bridge the gap between life here and beyond. Thanks for reading some ramblings!

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