What Happens After Death?
Three viewpoints expressed by my teenage patients.
Posted February 11, 2023 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- A common view is that after death, the soul ascends to heaven.
- Some are certain about the lack of existence after death and believe this makes life all the more beautiful.
- A humble position is to accept that what happens after death is unknowable.
Children often bring up the subject of death in my counseling practice. Some children in their middle elementary school years report a fear of dying and sometimes express worry about falling asleep because they or their family members might die overnight. More frequently, teenagers bring up the topic of death in the context of coming to grips with having a finite life and asking about its meaning.
Many of my patients who bring up the topic deal with anxiety, but some deal with the loss or impending loss of a loved one, including a pet. Some patients have a serious or terminal medical illness that brings death closer to home.
Studies have shown that children develop views on death based on how it is presented to them. If death is presented as resulting from a cessation of biological function, young children are more apt to think of death in biological terms than when death is explained in an afterlife context, e.g., “Your grandmother is now with God.” However, as they age, children and adults often adopt two parallel stances about death involving a biological and an afterlife or religious stance (Harris, 2018).
In this post, I present the views of representative teenagers from my practice, including brief excerpts of the discussions I have had with them.
A common view expressed by many of my patients is that after death, their souls will go to heaven. These patients also mostly believe that their pets will go to heaven. However, very few say they can explain what happens in heaven. They are of split opinion regarding whether they can interact with the souls of loved ones in heaven.
For grieving patients who believe in the afterlife, I offer the opportunity to use hypnosis to interact with their loved ones. Most patients take up this opportunity, including those who say they are unsure whether interactions are possible with the deceased. After they imagine such an interaction, most patients report that it felt real and that they feel better about the loss of their loved one.
Some patients wonder how heaven can be real if different religions view the afterlife differently. We discuss that religions represent mankind’s attempts to make sense of the world and define principles we should live. I suggest that since people have promulgated religions, the guidance they offer may be imperfect and inconsistent within each religion or in comparison with other religions, even if God originally inspired it.
There Is Nothing After Death
A view expressed by a minority of my patients is that existence ceases at death. They explain that they believe there is no ability to feel, think, or perceive anything after death. Some express that life is pointless as it has no inherent meaning.
I share that a few of my patients believe that the lack of existence after death makes life all the more beautiful. They suggest that the fragility of life can serve as an impetus to make the most out of it.
We discuss that our perception of reality is limited by what our brains have been geared to handle. For example, we know a lot that we cannot perceive, such as light or sound, that is out of range of our brain’s ability to register. It also is reasonable to assume that there are many things we cannot perceive, of which we are unaware. Thus, rather than a position of certainty about the lack of existence after death, it may be more humble to hold an agnostic position: It is unknowable what happens after death.
My remaining patients state they do not know what happens after death, and many are bothered by this ambiguity.
I ask my patients if they want to find out whether they can develop a different understanding of what happens after death. If they are interested, I offer to interview their subconscious and typically ask the following questions:
Did you exist before the patient was born? The majority of my patients’ subconscious responds affirmatively.
Will you exist after the patient dies? Nearly all of the subconscious responds affirmatively.
If patients have questions for their subconscious, we pose them. Whether the subconscious responses to these questions represent a reality regarding existence after death or the patients’ wishful thinking, from a clinical standpoint, it is apparent that this exercise is useful as patients report feeling better.
Finally, I often share a story I wrote as an 18-year-old when I grappled with the same questions.
The main character of this story is the potion-maker who has a shop that contains all the potions that might exist. He offers a potion of everlasting life for free to a young man who has come into the shop. The young man inquired whether the potion-maker knew if there is life after death.
“Why yes, I do,” answered the potion-maker, gesturing toward a massive book on his shelf. “I have determined that there is definitely no life after death.”
In response to the young man’s question, the potion-maker stated that he has not taken the potion.
“But why not?”
“The reason is quite simple,” explained the potion-maker. “Life is just too long if it lasts an eternity. I would see everything, do everything, gain everything, lose everything, and then I would still need to exist for an eternity with nothing new to do.”
The young man thanked the potion-maker for his honesty but declined to take the potion.
Sometime later, a young lady entered the shop and inquired about the potion or everlasting life. She, too, wanted to know if there is life after death.
“I have looked at that question long and hard, “replied the potion-maker. “And I have reached the conclusion that it is impossible to reach a conclusion regarding this question.”
The young lady mused, “There are so many things I want to do. It would simply be marvelous to live forever.”
The potion-maker interjected, “But what if there is a heaven? Would you not be missing your chance to go there if you lived forever on this Earth?”
The young lady decided to pass on the opportunity to live forever.
Finally, an old man rushed into the store and demanded the potion of everlasting life.
“But wait,” said the potion-maker. “Don’t be hasty. Should you not consider that I have proven that there is life after death? I’ve even proven there is a heaven.”
“Yes,” said the old man irritably. “I already know that heaven exists. And I also know that there is a hell. And that’s where I’ll be going if I do not live forever. For you see, I have committed a terrible crime.”
“I see,” said the potion-maker. “You wish to live forever so that you can escape eternal damnation?”
“Yeah,” replied the old man. “Can I have the potion now?”
“Certainly.” The potion-maker gave the old man a bottle of black bubbling liquid.
The old man turned away from the counter and looked out the door of the shop as he greedily drank the potion. He started feeling better within a few moments.
“Am I going to live forever now?” he asked.
“Yes,” replied the devil.
The potion-maker story often serves as a platform for my patients to further discuss their ideas.
I share with my patients that I believe the mystery of death is one of the gifts we have been given by virtue of being sentient beings. This mystery can prompt us to carefully consider what we want to achieve in our limited existence on this Earth and gives us a better perspective regarding what is truly important in our lives.
Harris, Paul, L. 2018. Children’s understanding of death: from biology to religion. Phil Trans R Soc B, 373: 20170266.
More information about how patients deal with questions relating to death can be found in the 2021 book, "Changing Children’s Lives with Hypnosis: A Journey to the Center," by Ran D. Anbar, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.