“Dying is a living act.”

I thought this article, “Ted Turner Wants to Go to Heaven,” was interesting. I’ll summarize it here: It gives an overview of Turner’s childhood and his life’s achievements, but the focus of the article begins and ends with his beliefs about heaven. And as his life’s hourglass is running out, he’s attached himself to the possibility of an afterlife.

Or so the interviewer says. You wonder how much of these types of articles are shaped by what the writer believes. Between the actual lines of dialogue, between the leading questions, we can never really know what the subject of the interview believes for certain. Perhaps Turner was just playing along. Perhaps not. (It’s too bad they turned the focus from his good deeds to his good deeds is the ticket to heaven.)

Regardless, you can understand that, as one’s life is winding down, as the eyes and the hearing goes, as the brain loses its grip on things it once knew, one might revert once again to the stories and tales learned earlier in life, to the things that brought comfort in childhood.

In “The God Argument,” AC Grayling writes that “dying is a living act.” We experience the grief of death in losing others we care about, but we experience dying only for ourselves. Dying is part of living. It’s something we alone have to deal with, and it’s a possibility that is present from the moment we are born and grows with great urgency the longer we live.

The belief in heaven seems to help many people in their time of transition. The body seems to know when it’s in its winter, and perhaps, at some point, there is an awareness that the end is very near. You can certainly smell death on some people. Or maybe you’ve seen family or friends with terminal illness in their last days. They see shapes and shadows; they believe that people are coming for them; they hear conversations and see relatives who died years—even decades–earlier.

Some chalk these experiences up to angels and spirits and preparation for the trip to an after-world. Others—like me—see this as part of the brain’s breakdown as it moves from life back into nothingness, into its previous unborn state. Maybe these experiences are a reflex, an anesthetic nature provides to the dying to help them cope.

I don’t consider the soul a separate entity. Our essence is merely the result of the chemical workings in our individual, self-contained units. But the idea of another part of ourselves living on after death has helped people for thousands of years in many different ways. As Grayling noted, “Plato took the view that citizens should be encouraged to believe in a blissful afterlife for heroes so that they would make good soldiers.” These superstitions have not only been useful to leaders and to religions for reasons of manipulation but also to individuals who can see their deaths clearly ahead.

How do we avoid the fear of dying? One way is to concentrate on living. This works for some of us. But for those left with time to ponder death, for those who can no longer concentrate on living, I certainly would not begrudge them their hope for eternal life–to make their last living act easier.


22 responses to ““Dying is a living act.”

  1. Thank you for this. My mother is dying and I am the only non-believer in a large family. believe, I still take great comfort in the thoughts from others and the actions displayed by them. I understand it. It’s not the words they use (God, praying, heaven) but the feelings behind those words that matter. And that gives us all comfort during this time.

  2. Just put “The God Argument” on hold at my library. Thanks so much for this reference. I have been searching for more understanding about growing old and facing mortality! It is said that a coward dies a thousand times and I was beginning to think I’m a coward. I don’t mean to sound moribund, but I have noticed that since turning 57, thoughts of death are kinda like my background music. Every sunset, every singing bird — sweetness heightened by wondering how many more? I’m thinking in terms of getting rid of things so my daughter won’t have to handle all my ‘stuff’. I think of the practical aspects. I worry about my daughter coping with grief because I have found that I have no comfort myself from the death of my mother and that’s been 6 years ago ….

    • @Trishia Jacobs You’re not alone in those feelings. I think we must all be considered cowards.

      We must really be enjoying life because we do not want it to end. I think Grayling mentions that in his book. It’s not the dying so much, as the dying before we’re ready to let it all go.

  3. Another great post, Debbie. I remember having a conversation with my dad over 20 years ago. Though he was raised a Catholic, he never really went deep with faith. That is, until he lost his partner, my step-mother, to cancer. She suffered horribly from pancreatic cancer. My sister and I flew in the day before she died. Hospice had set up a bed for her, and the living room looked like hospital room. I saw a side of my dad I’d never seen before, as he tenderly and attentively took care of her in her last hours. It brings tears to my eyes as I write this.

    After her passing, he became very religious. The problem was, he also became very conservative, too, which means that it affected many peoples’ human rights as he voted a straight ticket against the best interests of his own daughters. I wholehearted agree that i wouldn’t want to begrudge anyone a sense of comfort in times like this. Belief in a god is not the problem until the side-effects of belief take its toll on the well being of humanity.

    • Hi Victoria–My dad died of pancreatic cancer–what a painful death. I’m sorry your family suffered that, too. I can understand the emotions of seeing a parent (your dad in this case) taking care of a sick spouse.

      Your second point sums up how I feel about religion. It’s good for people personally, but when it becomes a political issue, then it’s not good. As you said–he voted against the best interests of others, even his daughters. Too bad belief just can’t be kept in the church.

      • Debbie, I’m so sorry to read that about your father. Thank you for your reply, and please know that it wasn’t my intention to make this political. I’ve studied extensively about death anxiety. I wanted to understand why I lost my fear of death after having a type of ‘awakening’ for lack of a better word, that not only played a role in my deconversion and appreciated for life, but while having this experience, I completely lost my fear of death. So I started studying everything I could get my hands on about the brain to give me a better understanding of what I experienced from a neurological perspective, and I’m certain I found the answers, which I won’t go into on this post.

        I wanted to highlight one of your questions about how we can overcome fear of death. I specialize in brainwave training, using isochronic tones (brainwave entrainment) and have since 2006 before mainstream science really started showing evidence of it’s cognitive effectiveness on mental disorders using Alpha brainwave training.

        Todd Murphy is a behavioral neuroscientist, and he and Michael Persinger, also a neuroscientist, did experiments using low-intensity complex magnetic signals. Here are a few excerpts:

        […repeated, simultaneous stimulation of the left amygdala (associated with positive affect) and the right hippocampus (associated with a positive cognitive style) will, over time, raise the baseline activity of these two structures, allowing a positive emotive and cognitive style for individuals, possibly by entraining their neuroanatomical substrates with each other. This is postulated to be within the range of personality alterations described popularly as ‘Spiritual Transformation’.

        The right amygdala’s contribution to death anxiety suggests that left amygdaloid stimulation could easily attenuate it. Freedom from fear of dying is a common theme in spiritual traditions of many derivations, and it’s attainment is taken as evidence of spiritual growth. Dr. Persinger, and the rest of our research group place considerable weight on the notion that attenuating death anxiety is a crucial function of both human spirituality and limbic system function, and that its neural substrate can be accessed using limbic stimulation.


        Based on my own personal experiences, I know that death anxiety can be attenuated without neurotechnology, but just imagine a world where people didn’t make rules that harm humanity or vote against their own best interests or others, in order to suppress their anxiety and fear about death. This knowledge leaves me feeling hopeful. Apologies for such a long comment, and again, thank you for yet another thought-provoking post.

        • Hi Victoria, No need to apologize. I didn’t think you were trying to make a political statement, but merely an observation with which I agree. Thank you for the words about my father. You seem very kind and considerate.

          I remember reading about this on your blog, and I may have left a comment. A good friend of mine did “light-wave therapy” to help her with anxiety about living in NYC during 9/11. Is that similar to your research?

  4. Btw, Debbie, I realize you didn’t bring up god, but rather, heaven. So perhaps I should have put emphasis on heaven rather than god. I don’t think there are a lot of religions, especially major religions, which promote heaven without an association with a god or gods.

    You said:

    “Maybe these experiences are a reflex, an anesthetic nature provides to the dying to help them cope.”

    When my cat was dying, he was purring a lot. Purring is generally associated with contentment and pleasure. I asked the vet about this, and she told me that cats will purr when they are in pain, and in their last stages of death as a way to comfort and console themselves. So with that in mind, I think that belief in an afterlife may provide a similar coping mechanism, both for the living and the dying.

  5. Thanks Deb for this post. This is a topic I have been struggling with lately. I have only recently (the last two years of my 38) embraced that I am not a believer. It feels great but the fear of letting friends and family down (I live in a small town in the Deep South) and how I view death has stirred emotions within me that, while healthy, are a struggle. Your posts help tremendously.

  6. My dad died very suddenly of a heart attack fourteen years ago, at the young age of 51. He was the first person to whom I was close who died, and his death absolutely crushed me. I was still a believer back then, and I was tortured by the fear that my dad didn’t go to heaven – because, you see, he was agnostic. Over time, I talked myself into believing that of course he went to heaven – because God is merciful, blah blah blah (how convenient it is, the things we can talk ourselves into . . .), and I was comforted by that, by the belief that one day I would be reunited with him.

    When my beliefs fell away years later, that’s one of the things I had the hardest time with – the realization that there is no afterlife, and no, Dad and I would not ever be reunited. I had a really hard time with that.

    And then, over time, I realized that my dad does live on. He lives on in me, in my heart and my memory; he lives on in my children – in the shape of Lilah’s brown eyes, in Annabelle’s square jaw, in Joey’s smile. That’s the afterlife I believe in now. The one who died has no awareness of it, of course, because he is gone. Death and afterlife only matter to the living, anyway. But it’s enough for me.

    I was moved by this passage from The God Argument:

    “The fundamental question for us all is how to deal with the deaths of others. When we grieve for someone who was important to us, we are grieving the loss of an important part of what made life meaningful to us. Recovering from grief takes a long time, a time that has to be endured. It is marked in many societies by formal periods of mourning, between one and three years long. But the world is never again entire after grief. We do not get over losses; we merely learn to live with them.

    “But there are consolations. The coupled facts that the dead once lived, and that we loved them, are written indelibly into the record in their connectedness. They are facts that can never be effaced from time. If one wished for eternity, that is the best kind one could imagine.”

    • @Lisa What a beautiful comment. Our loved ones live on in us, in our kids. I agree, “Death and afterlife only matter to the living, anyway.”

      My dad died a little over a year ago, and I still miss him. I guess you always will miss the people you were close to. I remember that great quote from the book, too–thanks for including it.

  7. Many of these comments reminded me of the website I came across last January — caring.com, and in particular, the warmth and wisdom of its pages on death and dying, http://www.caring.com/search?query=dying&x=0&y=0 I’d lost my parents more than 10 years before and still found great comfort in some of the articles and insights there. I am reminded again that I want to put a link to those pages someplace where my son will find it when he needs it.

  8. First, @Lisa, a very powerful response. That’s going to hang around in my head for a long time.

    As someone absolutely besotted with physics, it became increasingly clear to me that once someone has lived (regardless of how they lived), that person will continue to affect the universe ad infinitum. One change affects another, which in turn affects another, and so on. The rate and scope of this change effect can actually multiply on itself. In this sense, we do live forever. We just don’t have the conscious capacity to perceive it.

    We quite literally are part of the fabric of the universe. We were born from star dust (also quite literally), and someday out atoms and molecules will be flung back out into the cosmos when our local star experiences its form of death. That will go on to form other stars, planets, and life. We are, in every sense of the phrase, one with the universe. It is part of us and we are part of it. The universe changed the day we were born, and perhaps shortly after we were conceived. That change is permanent and will affect the universe until it, too, meets its end.

    I find this comforting. Life and death feed off one another. That’s about it.

  9. First, I’d like to say that I’m so happy I am a part of this community. This is my first comment on it, but I’ve read it for a long time and am a subscriber.

    I feel like so many people try to ascribe religious ideas to things they do not understand. Also, us nonbelievers or agnostics have had a limited vocabulary when it comes to certain experiences and feelings. (Often leading to “spiritual but not religious”, etc.). Recently, I told a friend that I felt sad sometimes thinking about losing my husband and about dying. She, very nonchalantly, told me that I should “make myself believe”. When I explained that I simply could not, she couldn’t understand. This person interviewing Turner may have a similar idea/ability.

    We also cannot forget that many believers love to use Einstein in order to argue that even scientists believe. However, as I said before, us nonbelievers and agnostics lack the vocabulary to speak in terms of the vastness of the universe, or the way we feel when we look at the stars, etc. Einstein spoke of “god”. However, Einstein himself said he did not believe in a personal god, and described himself as an agnostic.

    • Hi Emily, I’m glad you commented! It’s always nice to meet others who have similar views on religion/god.

      I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. That must be difficult every day, no matter how long its been.

      I know what you mean–you cannot force yourself to believe in something, especially something that doesn’t make sense!

  10. Also, @Lisa, I’m sorry for your loss. I lost my mother when I was young. She was an atheist. I was in Catholic school at the time (long story). I was taught that people that don’t believe cannot be forgiven. Though I wasn’t sure about the whole thing, I was terrified for her.

    I no longer am, but I still struggle with knowing I won’t see her again. I love your comment. Thank you for it. It helps me remember her, help me keep her alive.

  11. “” To live in the hearts of those left behind is to never die.”” – Carl Sagan

    Just bought this bumper sticker: “I believe in life before death”.

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