What happens to us when we die? If you’re from Kentucky, like me, chances are you believe that you either go to heaven or hell. Which is what I truly and completely believed would happen. That is, until a few years ago. If I take the time to actually reflect on when my views of the afterlife changed; I’d probably be able to pinpoint the exact moment as being when I first experienced the death of a loved one. I don’t mean the first time I went to a funeral; I was too young to understand what was going on at that point in time.
The first time that I was able to understand death, was around the time that I started my first year of college. During my freshmen year of school, I began going to church and was busily making friends and memories. It was a cool spring night during my second semester that I received a call from my parents informing me that my uncle had passed away. It was in this moment that reality came crashing in on me.
You see, it was that very moment in which I began to realize that life ended. I mean, I knew that people died, I wasn’t naïve to that fact. I had just never put it into perspective like this before. I was slowly coming to the horrifying realization that I would die. After this epiphany, it began to become all that I could think about. I was supposed to be comforted by the fact that I would be going to heaven when I died, but I became so obsessed with idea of mortality that I began to question and ponder every single aspect of the thing.
I’ve never been one to take anything on faith, it’s always been my experience that if you take something on faith you end up paying for it in the end. So how was I supposed to NOT question the idea of Heaven or Hell after I died? I began to research the afterlife of other religions. After all, if I could believe in streets of gold and winged cherubs playing music, then why couldn’t I believe the other ideologies?
I quickly came to understand that for the most part, it was all the same. Heaven and Hell. Different religions call them different places, but for the most part they state that a good person goes to one place and a bad person goes to another. Then, there were the religions that introduced me to the concept of reincarnation. I liked this concept as it’s loosely supported by science.
Basically the law of conservation of energy states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, it just changes forms. If our consciousness is made up of electrical impulses (energy), then it cannot be taken away, just changed into a different form. To me, this sounds like reincarnation. Finally, I had quieted the voice in my head from its constant pestering and torturous repetition.
Exactly one year later; I had just entered the second semester of my sophomore year. Life was going well for me at the time, and I had landed a small role in the school’s production of A Comedy of Errors. It was a week before the show opened and we were having a dress rehearsal. I received a call from my mom, she was sobbing heavily into the phone and I could barely understand what she was trying to tell me. My aunt was dying in the hospital.
It was this news that triggered an outbreak of crippling anxiety for me. The thoughts of death would not go away. Every time I talked to a friend or family member, cuddled with my dogs or even just looked at someone, I saw them dying. Not literally, I wasn’t hallucinating. It was more of a nagging realization that every single person with whom I let share my life; would eventually die and leave me alone.
It was because of these incessant nagging thoughts that I began to withdraw from the world. I stopped going out to see my friends. I didn’t audition for anymore plays. I gave up on school and life in general. At this low point in my life, my view on the afterlife started to shift from being certain that reincarnation had to be the truth to being terrified that there is no afterlife. Now, not only was I afraid to connect with anyone, I was also afraid that one day I would be gone. No more thinking, no more feelings or emotion… just nothing.
I tried everything imaginable, but I couldn’t shake that idea of nothingness. I still can’t even fathom the notion. When I think of nothingness, I picture a blank black background with no sound… like space with no stars. However, this can’t be true because ‘black’ is something that exists, and we’re talking about a void.
I began to grow terrified by the world around me. Death was lurking everywhere, everything was dangerous. I developed an affinity for panic and anxiety attacks along with a terrible fear of interacting with people to go along with the depression from which I’d previously grown accustomed to suffering. Try as I might, I could not stop obsessing over all of these ideas, they even plagued my sleep.
These crippling fears would persist for years running rampant through the disaster area that was my mind. It got so bad, so cripplingly terrible, that I stopped leaving my parents’ house all together. Everything I experienced sent me into a panic. Death, nothing, being alone, dying alone… these ideas and thoughts raced marathons through my brain for so long they became my new normal.
It took a long time for me to come to terms with my fears. But, I think that I finally understand something that never dawned on me during all of this constant thinking and worrying. The most comforting idea of all is the realization that whatever happens after we die… It doesn’t matter.
That’s right, I said it. It absolutely one hundred percent does not matter what the afterlife has in store. Every single person on this planet is born, and then they die. Death is unavoidable and you are not guaranteed a tomorrow. So if there’s nothing that I can do to stop it; why should I worry so much about it? Everyone dies eventually, no amount of hiding away in my room can change that. No matter how much I try, I cannot stop time from moving forward. I can’t stop living just because I’m afraid of dying.
I have resigned to the fact that I don’t know what will happen when I die. I still struggle with the notion that the people about whom I care will eventually die, but I also know that living life without people to love and care about is more like just existing in a space for a finite amount of time. Life is lived through the people with whom you connect. Each person in life experiences different events, makes different memories than everyone else in the world. It is through our shared friendships that we get to experience the true beauty which life has to offer. Through each other, we experience parts of life we might have only dreamt of when we were on our own.
It is my conclusion that, in preparation for whatever comes after this, people should live their lives as best as they can. Help one another, raise each other up to become better versions of themselves. There’s no guarantee that your religion is the right religion, there’s no guarantee of a heaven or hell. There might be, but you shouldn’t let those ideas dictate your actions. You’re not truly being a good person if you’re just acting that way so you don’t go to hell. You’re not truly serving your God if you’re just doing certain things to get into heaven.
To be a good person and serve God, you must want to do right. You do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes the line between right and wrong is blurry, and that’s perfectly okay. Follow your heart, be kind to others, help those who can’t help themselves, and just try to make this world a better place. Because no matter what you believe, you never truly know what comes next. The only thing you can know for sure, is what’s going on in this life. So, make the most of this life and seek comfort in your beliefs, but don’t let them stop you from experiencing the beauty and joy that this life has to offer.