The Mystery of What Follows Death - CancerChoices

Healing into life and awareness of our mortality are not opposites. They are two sides of the same coin. Not everyone is drawn to confront our mortality. But for those of us who are willing to risk it, it can deepen our sense of the meaning and beauty of our lives perhaps more than anything else. That is why virtually all the great religious, spiritual, and philosophical teachers have made meditation on our deaths so central to their teachings.

Consider that possibility. If it isn’t time for you to do that yet, no worries. If it is time, I think you will find that it greatly diminishes anxiety and fear. It is one of the greatest human meditations.

How do you feel about death?

Here I describe ten common ways of facing the prospect of death I have witnessed over the decades in the Commonweal Cancer Help Program:

  • Fear death and dying
  • Fear suffering in dying but not death
  • Fear neither death nor suffering but something else—leaving children or loved ones—or simply leaving this world with all its joys and sorrows
  • Fear these (above) things but are in deep grief about them
  • Denial about death
  • Accept the prospect of death
  • Welcome the prospect of death
  • Curious about what they will find on the other side
  • Deeply transformed by facing death and dying

How facing death reduces fear and helps us live better

For over 99% of human history, death was so woven into life that it was simply part of everyone’s experience. Then, just moments ago in geological time, humans began to eat better, practice better sanitation, and cure diseases that used to be fatal. In the developed world, we also removed the care of the dying from the home to hospitals and nursing homes. The direct experience of death became far less frequent. The result was that death became more frightening to many. We’ve only begun in the past few decades to bring conversations about death back into everyday life.

In reality, there’s a great deal that is truly valuable to learn about death and dying. The more we learn, the more prepared we and our family and friends will be when the time finally comes. There are physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual dimensions of dying. 

“What is death?” is one of the most fundamental life questions we can ask. Every great religion and philosophy seeks to answer this question. Each of us must find our own answer. One of the greatest still unanswered questions is whether something of us survives.

What NDEs suggest about an afterlife

Approximately 5% of Americans report near-death experiences (NDEs). In a recent study on people who survived cardiac arrest involving 25 hospitals in the United Kingdom and the United States, 40% of patients had some degree of awareness when they were seemingly unconscious or dying. And a remarkable 21% of patients had transcendent recall of their experiences.1Parnia S, Keshavarz Shirazi T et al. AWAreness during REsuscitation – II: A multi-center study of consciousness and awareness in cardiac arrest. Resuscitation. 2023 Oct;191:109903; Murez C. 40% of patients recall some consciousness during near death experiences. Health Day. September 14, 2023. Viewed October 25, 2023. 

Psychiatrist and philosopher Raymond Moody is a pioneer in this fascinating field. The usual sequence of experiences when the people he interviewed were temporarily “dead” was as follows:2Moody R. Life After Life: The Investigation of a Phenomenon—Survival of Bodily Death, cited in Heath PR, Kilmo J. Handbook to the Afterlife. 2010. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books. 58-9.

  • Hearing the news from others present that one is dying or has just died
  • Feeling of peace and quiet
  • Noises, such as buzzing, unsettling sounds, or music
  • Moving through a dark tunnel; note, however, that a 1982 Gallup poll found that only 9% of those reporting NDEs included a tunnel description as part of the experience
  • Out-of-body sensations, which often include floating and going to a trans-physical realm
  • Meeting others as spirits, who may be loved ones already dead or strangers
  • A being of light, sometimes described as a brilliant clear light, but with a sense that it is a personal being with personality, warmth, love and knowingness
  • The review, when one is rapidly yet comprehensively and in great detail able to experience his or her entire earthly life up until the time of the NDE
  • The border or limit—a point beyond which one cannot, or is not allowed to, proceed further into the afterlife realm
  • Coming back to one’s physical body in the same location where the NDE began
  • Telling others of the experience
  • The NDE affecting one’s life
  • New views of death, often no longer feeling afraid of it or even looking forward to it, although this is not always the case
  • Corroboration (where the NDEr is able to provide verifiable information about things that took place—as in the operating room or at the scene of the highway accident—when he or she was clinically dead, often with no electrical brain activity present)

The International Association for Near-Death Studies has been promoting scientific research on this well documented phenomenon since 1978. I also had a remarkable conversation with Kelly Turner, author of Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer against All Odds, in which she recounted her near-death experience. 

Explore death to live more fully 

Reading about death, watching films, or reflecting on death either alone or with others, can greatly reduce what I would call surplus or unnecessary anxiety about death and dying. In other words, you may—like me—have a core fear of death that you may never fully overcome. But by a continuing process of sitting with your questions about death, you may greatly diminish surplus anxiety. For those with severe anxiety about death, you may wish to explore psychedelics therapy if it is legal and available in your jurisdiction, which has been shown to reduce death anxiety. See Learn about psychedelics › below.

Many people don’t have a safe place to talk about death and dying. We have devoted much time to exploring death in the Commonweal Cancer Help Program retreats for four decades. And we have woven that insight into I encourage you to read the sections of devoted to death and share them with your loved ones.

Learn more

See links to helpful resources in our Dying Well handbook ›

We also welcome you to join our sister program Healing Circles Global’s virtual circles on Death and Dying: Impermanence and the Gift of Life ›


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About the Author

Michael Lerner

Michael Lerner is co-founder of Commonweal and co-founder of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, Healing Circles, The New School at Commonweal, and CancerChoices.

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Michael Lerner is co-founder of Commonweal and co-founder of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, Healing Circles, The New School at Commonweal, and CancerChoices. He has led more than 200 Commonweal Cancer Help Program retreats to date. His book Choices In Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer was the first book on integrative cancer care to be well received by prominent medical journals as well as by the patient and integrative cancer care community.

Michael Lerner Co-Founder