What Comes Next?

One of the writing ideas I’ve had in the back of my head for several months, since long before I lost Bryan, is the question of what happens after death.

My family and friends embrace a broad range of beliefs – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, pagan, agnostic, atheist, and even none of the above. Those religions have differing traditional beliefs about the existence of the soul, the afterlife, and the definition of heaven and hell as well as the entry criteria. On top of that, many believers have their own ideas on the subject, perhaps varying widely from accepted dogma.

What do you believe?

Is there a part of our existence that transcends the purely physical – a soul, a spirit? Does it transcend death?

If so, in what manner? Are there ghosts? Guardian angels? Judgment, and heaven? Reincarnation? A return to the sacred earth?

If you believe in a heaven and/or hell, what’s your vision of heaven? Pearly gates, streets paved with gold, and angels singing hosannas at the foot of the throne? Or something else?

According the tenets of Christianity, Bryan made a profession of faith, was baptized and will be waiting for me in heaven.

My problem is, that while I would classify myself as a liberal Christian, I don’t think I believe in a literal heaven and hell. I don’t know what I do believe, but it’s not streets of gold and perpetual hymns of praise.

I suppose none of us will find out until we go through it ourselves, and even then we’ll probably interpret events through the lens of our own culture and symbolism.

Still, I’m interested in your input. What do you believe?

1Please don’t feel like you need to tiptoe around me on this subject – I’m truly interested in ideas and discussion. I have my own ideas too, after all.

2If I do not already know you, and you leave me a proselytizing message of some sort, I will banish your comment to the spam queue faster than you can say “Amen.”

3This is a complicated question. If you’d prefer to answer in your own blog instead of the tiny comment window, please do and I’ll add a link to your post.

18 Responses to “What Comes Next?”

  1. MWT Says:

    My father survived his death, and for several months afterward he visited my dreams. He was as upset about being on the wrong side of the Great Divide as we were, and didn’t want to move on for quite some time. As the nature of dreams go, where reality is ever-shifting and communication is difficult because there is no longer a common language, I don’t know very many of the specifics of his situation, though he tried to tell me, and I kept trying to help him. The last time I saw him was well after the last time everyone else did, and I didn’t truly mourn until well after, because he wasn’t really gone.

    The only time I really saw a good, clear view of his soul was in the hospital right after. His body was in front of me, looking like an inanimate object, and he himself was hovering in the corner of the room behind me. And I have never seen anything quite so … undiluted by facades … as I saw then. He was still getting over the shock, and I had just started getting seriously upset, so I didn’t handle it well, and it’s one of the things I most regret.

    As far as noncorporeal entities go, yes. They exist, and they are everywhere. And they are pretty much just like regular people – some are nice, some are mean, etc.

    I think I will have to move this to my own blog. These are hard memories to share, and yeah, a tiny comment box doesn’t really do them justice.

  2. Brandy Says:

    I haven’t reflected much on the subject or been asked a similar question before.

    To answer from my gut I would say that once you are dead, you are dead. I would be pleased to find out I am wrong however there are so many society benefits to perpetuating the ‘good goes to heaven’ ‘bad goes to hell’…it hardly sounds like an impartial message to human kind.

  3. duncan Says:

    Jeri -

    The curious thing here is that what we all believe doesn’t really matter. What IS, is what matters. If we all believe God exists and in fact he doesn’t, that doesn’t make him exist (and the corollary is also true). Confusing doctrines that abound on this earth is one way the adversary keeps many from happiness. Add to that the fact that no one can ever convince another that their beliefs are the ones that are ‘true’. Each *must* figure it out for them self. Our beliefs are very well documented at the site below. I’ve provided a link to just one of many that talk about this particular aspect of ‘life’.

    And yes, Brandy, you are right. There is much more to life than the “good go to heaven and the bad go to hell” – lucky for me! :)

    http://www.mormon.org/mormonorg/eng/basic-beliefs/heavenly-father-s-plan-of-happiness/life-after-death

  4. Random Michelle Says:

    My views on death are similar to my views on religion: I know some people feel and see things, but I am not one of those people.

    I’ve witnessed death twice in recent years. Once the death of my cat and once the death of my grandmother. In both cases I was simply watching, and in both cases, saw nothing–in fact I wasn’t sure in either case when the precise moment of death was–I just noticed she was no longer breathing.

    What does this mean for my view of an afterlife? Nothing really. Just as I don’t discount the existence of god simply because I lack faith or the sense to feel god, I don’t discount the experiences of others regarding death either.

    And I did personally experience something eerie in high school.

    I was one of the student trainers for the football team, and adult trainer from the previous year, who had taken a job in another school, was supposed to come to the first game of the season. Another student trainer was looking out for him, because she’d been close to him the year before, and during the first quarter said, “there he is!” but no one else saw him and he never showed up on the field.

    Monday morning we found out he had died at about the time Sharon had “seen” him. Sharon later said she’d had similar experiences through her childhood.

    Does this mean anything? I have no idea. I cannot feel the presence of god if there is one, nor can I see spirits if they exist. But this is quite possibly a inherent failure (biological or spiritual or whatever) on my part rather than proof of the non-existence of god or spirits.

    So that’s a long way of saying, I believe there is something else to the world, but I am blind and deaf to such presences myself.

  5. Janiece Says:

    My thoughts are up.

  6. Eric Says:

    I don’t know if it’s worth anything or not, but since you asked: I believe when you are dead, you’re dead. Trying to imagine non-consciousness is impossible and instinctively terrifying, I think; but weirdly, it’s a wholly irrational instinct. After all, the terrifying part is imagining yourself experiencing “nothing,” except if there’s no longer a you there is no experience (hence the impossibility of imagining it). As soon as you try to imagine what it’s like not to exist anymore, you’re no longer imagining what it’s like to not exist.

    The most important thing, then, is having a good run while you’re here. There’s a fundamental obligation to try to leave the place in better shape before you leave than it was when you came in. To do well by others. To be a good human. That is all anyone can aspire to, hope for, ask for.

    I’m under the impression that Bryan had a very good run.

    As always, my best to you, Jeri.

  7. James Says:

    Like many in our modern times, I have a difficult time imagining a literal Heaven or Hell. The ideas brought about through Christianity (the ideals, I should say, whihc I do not intend to be confused with holier than thou attitudes), are worthy and make me wish for a true paradise to exist, where our loved ones go upon death. I have a hard time reconciling it as anything more than a wish, but still, it is a wish worth making. I am surely not the only one who thinks when we die, that is simply the end, is a dreary concept and makes one wonder the great question: “Then what is the point to life at all?”

    Just my random thoughts of an accumulated lifetime. If anybody really has a definitive answer, please post it. :-)

  8. Cindi in CO Says:

    Jeri, I believe that the Soul exists, and that there is more to the world than just the physical. I believe that we will have to answer for the things we have done before we can move on to the the next stage of existence, whatever that may be.

    And I believe that everyone we ever loved, everyone who ever loved us, (including our furry friends) that have gone before, will be there for us in the next plane or stage or whatever.

    Because I just can’t imagine things being any other way and still deal with the losses we all experience.

  9. Darren Says:

    This is something I gave a lot of thought to after my father passed away. The only real solid conclusion I came to is that no one can really know if anything happens after death – because they haven’t died yet.

    That said, I’ve come up with my own educated guesses. After a lot of research, a lot of thinking, and a lot of talking with spiritual advisors from many faiths, I couldn’t find any convincing argument that such a thing as an immortal soul exists – even though I badly wanted it to.

    At first this realization was depressing. After all, what was the point of life if it ends, and that’s all? Over time, I realized that life only really has a point if it ends. If there is some “life after life” to go on to, then there is no real reason to pay attention to what a beautiful gift each day is.

    And, in a way, our loved ones do live forever – those that survive tell their stories, carry on their ideals, and so on. Knowing that I help my father “live” in this way is far more comforting than imagining him looking down from some distant place where he can watch, but not be involved.

  10. Jeri Says:

    MWT, thanks for sharing such a fascinating perspective. Is it a blessing or a curse to have that level of perception?

    Brandy, Eric, I can understand and be attracted to the simplicity of that belief. There’s existence, and then there’s… not. I’m not particularly afraid of mortality so that concept doesn’t bother me, but I guess I do feel it’s a bit more nihilistic than my own thoughts on the subject. I do agree that Bryan had a good run, and if this life is all we have he lived his fully, with integrity and honor.

    Janiece, I responded to your post tongue-in-cheek on your site, but at some level I agree. We don’t know; we can’t know, until it happens to us. We can hope, imagine and believe, but until we experience it we have no closure or definitive answers.

    Duncan, you get a pass on the moderation brickbat because 1) you’re a good friend whose opinions and motivations I trust, and 2) I respect the depth of your faith, you truly do try to walk your talk. From my more universalist perspective, I have to ask, isn’t there possibly more than one version of ‘what is’? We see faith, eternity and heaven through the lens of our own culture and symbolism. So do the Muslims, Hindus, animists, etc. The descriptions of heaven in the book of Revelations are likely rooted in the deep divide between abject poverty and the unimaginable luxuries of royalty typical of the time. Maybe God is too big for human imagination to limit with our own tiny viewpoint on truth and eternity.

  11. Jeri Says:

    Michelle, I wonder if I’m not similarly blind. My take on matters of faith tends to be skeptical and intellectual – more a matter of philosophy and imagination than of deep emotional/spiritual connection and vision. To my great sorrow – and maybe sparing my sanity – I was not with Bryan when he passed away. I did hold my old, ill dog a few months ago when we put her down, and the sense of melting into peace was profound.

    Every day I commute to Seattle and pass the bench in the ferry terminal where they worked to save him, where he died, I strain for some perception of spirit, of emotional resonance, of connection with the events that took place there four weeks ago. And, there’s nothing, no lingering spirit I can sense, just a busy and often-used bench.

    Darren (welcome, from a fellow geek and skeptic!), there is something very profound about our loved ones living on as we honor them with our memories and ideals. Those memories are a better way for me to walk past that bench than a vision of the EMT response. I do admit to talking to him as I board the ferry, though, just in case he is able to watch somehow and hear my thoughts.

  12. Jeri Says:

    James, I agree with you on the ideals of faith, as opposed to the often controversial practice of religion. The question of “is this all there is?” is huge at times like these.

    My wonderful neighbor Joan mentioned a book summarizing a few near-death experiences, which might be fascinating reading. Still, I have to question even those subjective accounts on a couple of points – first, the brain generates our perceptions, and I’d imagine the neurochemical storm that accompanies near death could trigger any number of hallucinatory experiences. And second, again, our perceptions are defined by our existing culture and faith. One person’s benevolent, radiant god-like light at the end of the tunnel is another person’s terrifying oncoming train.

    Cindi (thank you so much for the card!), I have to agree with your view. Perhaps it’s blind faith, baseless hope, but I need to believe those deep connections transcend life somehow. My sister and I were discussing at lunch and her idea is some sort of return to the collective spirit or life force. It’s almost a Jungian view, the collective unconscious, but given its own metaphysical life outside the realm of our existence.

    Thank you all for these wonderful, perceptive insights – this has given me tremendous food for thought. Also, thanks for your patience with my insomniac, late-night over-intellectualizing.

    I guess, while I do believe there are many paths to belief (or unbelief) don’t think the afterlife, if there is one, is a completely solipsistic, totally subjective experience. Metaphorically, I’d hate to be looking for Bryan one day at the Starbucks on Main while he’s waiting for me at the Tully’s on 1st. ;)

  13. kim Says:

    Jeri, I posted my response up on Wilsonworld.

  14. Nathan Says:

    I’ve posted my thoughts on this in the past and I won’t go into detail, but they amount to: Don’t know; Can’t know; Futile to spend a lot of time worrying about it.

    I swear, I don’t mean to sound flip, but that’s really the conclusion I keep arriving at. I’ll admit that I’ve always been open to the possibility, but doubtful about the existence of God. I find my doubts growing stronger and my openness to possibility growing weaker as I age.

    Some of you have mentioned here (and elsewhere) that you have experienced various “somethings” after a loved one passed. I’ve never had a remotely similar experience. Is my lack of experiences a self-fulfilling refusal to see? Is yours a self-fulfilling product of expectations? Once again, no idea.

    I will say that even though I’m not likely to make a U-turn in my beliefs (or lack thereof), any time soon, I do harbor a certain envy of those of you who “know” things I don’t.

  15. Jeri Says:

    Kimby, your post was beautiful – thanks for sharing your experiences w/ your MIL’s continuing presence in your life.

    Nathan, I too envy that kind of perception, and those who have a deeply assured faith. I am wired for skepticism, questioning, doubting, flailing about… while I do believe, it’s 66% questions and 33% faith.

  16. MWT Says:

    I don’t know if blessing vs. curse is really the right question. It certainly makes the world fuller.

    Some more of my thoughts are up on my blog.

  17. Becca Says:

    I don’t know.

    I will say that I am a Christian. What this means at this time in my life, I am not sure.

    For my son, I would like to think that when he passes, I would like to think that if their truly is another place, a Heaven, he will be able to use the body he never got to in this one. He will be whole and healthy and the true child I have never seen. I mean, I know what I was taught as a child, but some days, call me a skeptic, I question. Never having gone through it.

    I would like to hope I am right on some levels. I will never really know, will I?

  18. Anne C. Says:

    Ah… I can finally read the comments here… (My netbook invariably gives me an error message when I try to access your site. I’m able to read the post on Google Reader, but not the comments.)

    Jeri, I’m agnostic. Like you, I see all the different paths and can’t believe that there is only one right way. Because I know that I don’t know, there are some things I choose consciously to believe for the simple reason that it makes me feel better and doesn’t harm anyone else. My chosen beliefs are something along the lines that you described from your conversation with your sister – a return to something greater. I see it as a transformation on the order of individual raindrops evaporating and becoming water vapor, co-mingling with other molecules of water.
    I have other thoughts and questions and theories, but ultimately, I don’t know if any of them have any merit at all. So, I go on living in the present, until the end.

    Many hugs to you…