What is actually on the other side?
My husband and I have a rather morbid running joke. We often ask each other if we are wearing good “ghost clothes”. Ghost clothes, of course, being the clothes that one wears when one dies and would wear forever as a ghost, haunting the living.
I don’t remember where we got that idea, online somewhere, probably, but it’s turned into one of our “things’. We like it. It suits us.
The subject of ghosts, and the afterlife in general, is one that people have many different ideas about due to their religion, lack thereof, paranormal experiences, or just about any other reasoning. The subject of ghosts is for another day.
So, what is the answer? What does happen to us when we die? That’s a topic that has boggled humankind since the very beginning, whenever that was.
The simple answer? None of us truly know, although plenty of people think they do. There are those Christians who believe that we go to Heaven if we are “saved” and to Hell if we are not, regardless of what we did in life. What entails being saved and how exactly that happens is something that no one can quite agree upon, but the more evangelical, the stricter the rules. Catholics have a whole other complicated set of rules that allow entry to Heaven. Other Christians take a more agnostic approach to what happens when we die.
There are different rules if you’re Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or just about any other religion you can think of, but that make sense doesn’t it? We all want to know what happens next. Everyone dies, some sooner than others, and that’s all we know.
There are those who believe in reincarnation, but even that has various beliefs. Some believe people escalate through life forms depending on their actions, others say that we stay human but work on our faults from previous lives.
Many, but not all, atheists believe that when we die, that’s it. We return to the dust from whence we came: no spirit, no soul, no Heaven, no Hell. Just... nothing. I understand that that may seem feasible if one doesn’t believe in a higher power, or any power, and I respect that belief, but I don’t share it. I believe that we have too much energy to just go gently into that good night.
Most people believe that there is a next, something that comes after, but we can’t see it. we don’t experience it while we’re alive. There is no documented, definitive, scientifically-accepted proof of the afterlife.
Does life go on after death? Several people have devoted years of their lives in study of this question. One tool in this study is the near-death experience. Elisabeth Kubler Ross, the author of On Death and Dying, studied near-death experiences for much of her career, recording and studying hundreds of personal accounts. For those not familiar with her work, she is responsible for mapping out the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, and was quite outspoken in her views.
She found that most people that she interviewed had similar experiences when they nearly died, or were clinically dead but were revived. Sometimes they were able to view their dying bodies from above, feeling no pain, seeing the medical staff working on them. They felt surrounded by love, they felt happiness, they were met by the spirits of loved ones, and often didn’t want to return to their bodies. They often felt a presence that they recognized to be God, no matter what the religion or cultural background. I’ve read several of her books and nowhere did she record an interview where someone felt afraid or that they were going to some sort of hell. Many times, they were given a choice to stay or told that it wasn’t their time to be there just yet. For many of them, it was a life-changing experience that allowed them to let go of the fear of dying. To be fair, that doesn’t mean she didn’t publish any of those interviews, but the sheer volume of positive experiences is impressive.
Take this as you will. People have alternate explanations for those experiences, painting them as hallucinations brought on by the final firing of neurons or some other dying brain activity, which is a possibility. I like science, it does really extraordinary things for the world, but there are still mysteries out there. What gets me are the stories of people who were given information during their experiences or met relatives who they never knew existed before they died, the information confirmed upon recovery. Situations like that should suggest the possibility that what those people experienced was real.
There are also the occurrences of after death experiences, or ADEs. This is when someone passes and their spirit returns to a loved one, usually to communicate comfort, sometimes a warning. An ADE can come in the form of a sighting, a very meaningful dream, a phone call, a very clear sign, or even scents specific to the deceased.
Now, these are probably the most mocked from people who don’t believe it, which is unfortunate. It is true that the desperation of people left behind can lead to seeing “signs” in everything, but my own personal experience with an ADE will stay with me forever.
Long story short, my father died before I was born and I never knew much about him. When I was thirteen, I was going through an abusive situation. I wanted my dad, I wanted him to make it better and I tried to contact him. That didn’t work when I tried it, but shortly after I had a dream that was unlike anything I had ever had up until that point. In the dream, or visitation as I think of it now, my father came to the house where I lived. He knocked on the door and when I answered it, he said, “I’m your father.” “I know,” I said, and let him in. But then, all of a sudden, we were in my grandparents’ basement, near the old piano that had been down there. My father began to play acoustic guitar and we talked. A lot of the conversation didn’t consist of actual words, but more of feelings. I felt love, lots of love, and I desperately wanted to curl up in his lap and just stay with him forever. After a time, he said that he needed to, but that he would be back.
I woke up with so many feelings. As soon as I could, I confirmed with my grandma and my mom that my father had played guitar, plus a couple of other things he had told me. These were things I did not know, could not have known because no one had ever really spoken to me about him. I am firmly, unshakably convinced that my father visited me that night and has made his presence known in other ways throughout the years.
Bill and Judy Guggenheim are the authors of Hello, From Heaven, a book full of interviews of people who received ADEs from their loved ones. Many of them were complete unbelievers or skeptics until it happened to them. It’s a good read and even if it doesn’t change someone’s mine, it does give one something to think about.
The Afterlife is something that has confounded humans since the beginning of time. We’ve always searched for what lies beyond death and until science comes up with a way to explain it fully, we will be left to wonder until it is our turn to experience it. As J.M. Barrie wrote long ago in Peter Pan, “To die will be an awfully big adventure.”