On Life After Death

No one really knows what happens when we die. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

I’m not a religious person, but I used to be. I was raised in a religious (albeit liberal) household, with a parent who teaches religion at the college level. And I went through a brief period in high school where I was born again (that didn’t last long. What’s with all the rules?). Suffice to say, if I were looking for a religious answer to my fears over death, I would have plenty of options to choose from. But I’m not religious, and I can’t just pick a religion because their answer for what happens after life ends is comforting to me. While that may work for some people, to me that would feel awful and fake, and just as bad as that idiotic wager Pascal made.

I’d like to believe in angels. That’s the happiest thing for me to believe, that if someone I love dies, they aren’t really gone. Or if I die and have unfinished business I can linger, like a bad houseguest, and take care of things.

Reincarnation seems less ideal to me, but still an acceptable option. I like the idea of having more than one chance to get it right. But I don’t like the idea of living a life without Tammy or my parents. What’s the point of living again, if it’s not with them?

Then there’s the biological understanding of death, and it doesn’t seem like enough. The heart stop beating, the lungs stop breathing. But how does a brain stop thinking? I understand and accept what happens to your physical remains – the energy is transferred elsewhere, either into the earth or to fuel a fire or whatever your choice may be. But that doesn’t explain what happens to your human essence, your soul, for lack of a better word. Maybe it’s hubris, but I cannot imagine just ceasing to exist, or my wonderful, vital parents or wife ceasing to exist either. My small human brain simply cannot wrap itself around the concept of death in the abstract. And it terrifies me.

One possible explanation for the obsession over this issue is that as a modern society we are generally insulated from death. With plenty of exceptions, most of us haven’t seen people die, or the process of a body shutting down after death. The only dead bodies I’ve seen have been at wakes and during cadaver dissection (which my other parent teachers at University. One professor of religion and one of biology with a side of human dissection…maybe that’s why this issue is so consuming for me?) and neither of those cases actually look like humans anymore. The bodies at wakes are sterile and waxy, and the cadavers are just…strange looking. It’s hard to describe, but they don’t look like people, more like plastic dummies of humans.

This is not a new thing for me to think about. I’ve thought about it off and on, especially in those Tuesday at Four AM moments when you wake from a sound sleep with your heart in your throat. But I’ve also thought about it randomly while walking to the subway, or getting groceries. I try to think about it when I can, but most of the time it seems too tender, and I shy away from it like I’m afraid of getting burned. Sometimes (and I’m embarrassed to admit this) there is a literal, physical reaction when Death pops into my brain: I’ll jump or twitch or clear my throat.

Maybe the miscarriage has brought the issue even more to the forefront of my brain. During those sickening and heavy days between the news that the pregnancy would not continue and when I started to bleed, one of the main thoughts I had was: I hope it isn’t in pain. I could stand the hurt to me you see, but not the possibility that there was a teeny tiny embryo in there that was in pain. And while I don’t believe it was a baby, or that it could feel pain, I can’t help but wonder. Did it have a soul yet? Where did it go? What happened to it? Did it feel anything? Did it know I loved it?

Even sitting here writing this, my throat is tight with tears and my heart races painfully in my chest. Thinking about death triggers an automatic anxiety attack for me, and I don’t know why.

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