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What happens when we die?

When we die, what happens? Do we really go to some magical place called “heaven?” Or do our souls simply cease to exist? For centuries, people have been trying to figure out what happens when we die. Some believe that death is the end of life as we know it, while others think that it’s just the beginning of a new journey. No one knows for sure what happens after we die, but the topic continues to fascinate us nonetheless.

So, let’s continue our conversation around the rituals and stories that support us when we’re facing death and grief. Because the story you tell yourself about death can either bring you comfort or add to your suffering.  

How the west views it (sadly)

Growing up in Western society, we’re taught life has a distinct beginning and end. The story goes something like this: if everything goes according to plan you are born, grow into an adult, become old, and die. Life is thought to be linear. And eventually, it reaches an endpoint. 

When you reach the end you’re basically evicted from society. You no longer have a role. You’re dead. Gone. And that’s where many of our fears lie. Fear of the unknown (what happens when we die?!). Fear of being powerless (I don’t want to be in pain). Fear of being alone (who will comfort me?). Fear of being forgotten (did I even matter?!). 

To make matters worse, as we age we’re expected to just sorta slowly fade into the background as if we don’t have anything to contribute anymore. We’re sorta useless and thus in preparation for our eternal eviction from society. And we see this everywhere in our modern society. We prize youth culture over the wisdom of our elders. We focus on the individual, on making our mark, or leaving a legacy.

But, the good news is, the West only offers one point of view. If we look to other cultures around the world we can find examples of how to keep our ancestors close and give them an ongoing role in our lives. And the even BETTER news is that we get to make our own meaning, to choose our own story.

Let me tell you a little story about what I believe happens when we die. I mean, no one will ever REALLY know right?!  No one has ever returned from the other side (well, near-death experiences are intriguing) to definitively say what happens. So why not have your own theory, story, and thoughts about it that bring you a sense of comfort and peace. Have conversations with your friends and family about it…it really is quite fascinating since it’s all up for interpretation.

When we think of death, we focus on the physical body itself. It’s easier to biologically understand what happens when we die. But when a fear of death shows up it’s often around the more spiritual aspect of death. This is when it’s often helpful to zoom out and look at things from the soul’s perspective. What’s happening at the soul level when someone dies?

My thought is, the dying become a soul without a body. Have you seen the Pixar movie ‘Soul’? They beautifully depict this.

Which leads us to wonder, what happens to that soul who has just left their body? This is the aspect of death we usually don’t discuss because we simply don’t know. 

Where do they go? 

My thought is, they are welcomed into a wonderful community on the ‘other side’ filled with all our beloved ancestors (yes, pets included…obviously). Because, if we include those who have already died suddenly our linear life becomes a full glorious circle. A soul is born from the land of ancestors, crosses over to ‘this side’, it grows into an adult, becomes a wise elder, and eventually returns to the land of the ancestors once again. The circle of life…expanded.

This brings us back to what happens here on ‘this side’. On earth. The living are left to adjust their ideas of who they are and their place in society after their loved one has died. Often, this involves taking on a new identity as a widow, orphan, bereaved parent, etc. And acknowledging that a part of us dies with our loved one. On a physical level death happens quickly. A car accident. A heart attack. A stroke. Even a death that’s anticipated for years suddenly arrives with a final breath.  

Our souls move slowly

But our souls move more s.l.o.w.l.y and measure time differently. It’s why we need time to process what has happened. It’s why we need space to adjust. And it’s why we so often struggle with big changes. For example, recent years have brought big changes to all our lives. The pandemic turned our world upside down in a very short period of time and we all wobbled around trying to figure out how to make sense of things, adjust our routines, and maintain our sense of connection and community while masking and social distancing. 

Modern life rushes on relentlessly (even in a pandemic) and expects us to do the same but our souls haven’t caught up. We need time to process such big changes in such a short amount of time.

We must learn to make peace with all the changes in our lives…especially those that come with death so our body and soul come back into alignment. And from this place of alignment transformation can happen – we can finally see the gift of wisdom tucked inside our grief.  

Why acceptance is important

When we accept the reality of the situation we’re faced with we can stop wishing things had gone differently or wishing for a different outcome and just BE. Suffering comes from struggling and exhausting yourself by refusing to accept what is happening right now. Acceptance allows us to be present in the moment, and be present with our loved one as they are. And even though there is still grief and heartbreak, there is also beauty and this strange and magical moment where the eternal part of us steps forward before it crosses over. Acceptance allows us to be a witness to that magic.

What brings us back into alignment (body and soul on the same page) and what allows us to process this change are rituals and stories.

Because the stories we share about death can help us heal and bring us comfort I’m going to share with you an Ojibwe story that offers a beautiful alternative to our linear, Western thoughts on death. It was presented to me as part of a course I did with death doula Sarah Kerr, and introduced as a living, breathing thing (the best stories always are).

Because this story is alive I will tell it in the oral tradition from which it comes. I ask that you receive it with an open heart and your full attention, just as you would a friend.

Listen here.

Death changes everything and that change can rattle us. But I choose not to believe that we simply cease to exist. Through personal rituals and stories like the one I just shared we give the dead an ongoing role in our lives. They remain a part of our community.

What if it’s up to you?  What if you get to choose what’s in the great unknown? What if you give yourself permission to believe in the story that brings you the most comfort and hope?

It might just make facing death a little less scary.

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