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Conversations about death – what it is, what it looks like – are scarce until we suddenly face it head on, often for the first time with the loss of a loved one.

It is difficult to generalize how people will respond to the subject of death because each of us is unique, but we generally feel uncomfortable at the thought of our own mortality. What often underlies this uneasiness, however, is thinking about the process of dying and the fear of a prolonged or painful death, rather than the state of being dead.


It is an absolute certainty. You are going to die. It’s unlikely in our lifetime that science will be able to provide a viable alternative, such as transplanting our brains into robot bodies, or freezing us until a convenient new planet becomes available, so we will die. Have you ever thought about your death in detail? Really thought about it? Perhaps it is time to give it some consideration. So what happens when we die?
what happens when we die

Physical Death
A natural death that happens when a person reaches the end of their life can be a peaceful process. Paula Spencer Scott of caringcom lists ten signs of approaching death in the elderly. These happen sometimes days before death occurs. They include loss of appetite, sleeping constantly and sometimes a period of alertness and lucidity, which is an ideal time to reconnect with the person and perhaps, if appropriate, to say goodbye.

An unanticipated death, sometimes called ‘sudden death’, is different and varies according to the cause. In the case of a cardiac arrest, there is a good chance that a person can physically die, yet be resuscitated, even up to 40 minutes after the heart ceases beating.

Near Death Experiences – NDEs
Dr Sam Parnia, Assistant Professor of Critical Care Medicine and Director of Resuscitation Research at The State University of New York at Stony Brook, has conducted several in depth studies into the process and experience of death by people who were resuscitated after cardiac arrest.

“Typically, they report being very peaceful. Some see a bright light, others feel the presence of a warm, loving, compassionate being. Many describe having a review of their lives, from childhood up to that point. Others tell of encounters with family members who have died. Others report out-of-body experiences.” — Sam Parnia in an interview for Der Spiegel magazine.

Parnia is convinced that our consciousness does not immediately cease after physical death and one other conclusion he made is that, for many people, the process of death is a peaceful and pleasant experience.

what happens when you die

Reincarnation
Many people believe in reincarnation, the process of dying and being reborn in another body, and there are many compelling stories to support this, although it has never been categorically proved by science.

Dr Ian Stevenson made it his life’s work to collect the ‘recollections’ of thousands of children who recount memories of a past life. He meticulously recorded as many details that the child could provide and then followed it up by researching the person that the child claimed to have been. By the time he retired from field research he had over 3,000 records. He never used hypnosis, preferring to assimilate his data from the child’s conscious recollections.

Often the child was able to describe details of where he or she lived, who their closest relatives were and sometimes had strong interests in subjects they had never been exposed to, such as classical music or art.

One thing he found that cropped up frequently was the occurrence of birth marks. A child might display a particular birth mark and when Dr Stevenson contacted the deceased person’s family, they would confirm that they also had a corresponding birth mark.

The transcription of Dr Steven’s interview with Omni Magazine makes for fascinating reading, and whether it is true or not, the idea of reincarnation gives many people comfort when they think about death.

Spiritual Death
If we accept that what happens when we die is an adventure in consciousness, then the physical act of dying is a mere portal to the next stage. None of us can say with certainty, of course, but one school of thought is that we return to source energy, that our individual consciousness becomes part of all-that-is. Several spiritual teachers hold fast to the idea that there is no actual death, that it is all part of a cycle. Some even consider that being alive on Earth is somewhat of a trial and that returning to spirit is the reward.

Ghosts and Spirits
There is no doubt that the consciousness of the dead can be reached. Time and again, this has been corroborated by psychics and mediums passing on information that has been substantiated by living people. It’s very possible that those who have passed on and returned to source are able to somehow connect with a psychic in order to deliver a message that is important to them. It’s not clear whether these souls are actually hanging around on earth as ghosts or are able to bridge the barrier between the spiritual and the living world.

what happens when you die shadows

Fear of Death
Fear of death is a natural thing, but often it can become debilitating, overriding all other concerns. Anxiety about dying is universal and everyone will experience it at one time or another. Generally though, it doesn’t permeate through every waking minute. When it does, it’s a sign that the sufferer should seek professional help.

According to the Calm Clinic, there are two kinds of death anxiety: one is during a panic attack when you feel as though you are dying, which makes the attack worse, which increases the fear. In other words, the fear is a symptom of the attack. The second is part of generalized anxiety. This can present in such ways as hypochondria, associated with multiple real and imaginary diseases. Fear of death is inbuilt into hypochondria. Other types of anxiety that can manifest as fear of death are Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Acceptance of Death
Thinking about what happens when we die is normal, and really should be encouraged in order to reach a calm acceptance. To see death as a cosmic joke is to miss the point of life. The prospect of death is one way of appreciating life. Once you lose interest in life, then the idea of death becomes welcomed, rather than feared.

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