There is so much unknown in this world. Every decision you make, every goal you pursue, every relationship you foster, they are all liable to change in ways you never could have predicted. Perhaps, the only guarantee that we have during our time on Earth is that we will die. Strangely, this one promised outcome is the one we often most doubt will actually come to pass.
Recently, scientists have discovered evidence that our brains are hardwired to deny our own mortality.
A recent study from Bar Ilan University in Israel confirmed that our brains actively work to deny our own impending mortality. Researcher Yair Dor-Ziderman explained that “the brain does not accept that death is related to us. We have this primal mechanism that means when the brain gets information that links self to death, something tells us it’s not reliable, so we shouldn’t believe it.” He explained that accepting our own death “goes against the grain of our whole biology, which is helping us to stay alive.”
Researchers developed a test to explore the topic. They showed volunteers flash images of faces, either their own face or the face of a stranger. Words appeared above the face images, sometimes related to death like “funeral” or “burial.” If the mortal words flashed with a person’s own face, their brain’s prediction system shut down; the brain simply refused to link deathly words with one’s own face.
Researcher Avi Goldstein said that “this suggests that we shield ourselves from existential threats, or consciously thinking about the idea that we are going to die, by shutting down predictions about the self, or categorizing the information as being about other people rather than ourselves.”
A Faith in Heaven Doesn’t Make Us Immune
As Christians, we have hope after death. We believe that we will enter Heaven and that will bring peace and an end to all our earthly suffering. And yet…. What exactly will Heaven be like? Like our time on Earth, we face much unknown about what happens after we leave Earth.
Within Christian teachings, there’s a wide variety of expectations of what Heaven will bring. Is Heaven in the sky above or will our Earth be restored and become the site of Heaven? Do we enter Heaven immediately after we die or during the “Last Judgement?” Will there be any sort of purgatory? Is Heaven more of a state of being instead of a physical place? What exactly will we do when we get there? Will time exist? Will we remember and maintain our earthly relationships? What will our bodies be like? Do we look down on Earth observing the people we loved and left behind?
These are all valid questions. So, even if you have a confidence of where you will go after death, it’s also very reasonable to have unease and confusion about Heaven. Naturally, this confusion may contribute to your brain behaving as though, “I won’t really die. It happens to others, but I don’t really need to think about it. Maybe God will perform a miracle, so I don’t die. Maybe Jesus will return before I pass away.”
And, if we think about Heaven, this also means that we need to dwell on the painful topic of Hell. Often times, we just turn off our brains and avoid facing these issues.
The process of dying is also painful. Perhaps you’ll pass away in a hospice situation where you are provided medication to ease your pain. Or, perhaps your death will be suddenly traumatic and very painful. Or, you may endure a longstanding disease which causes you years of suffering.
Saying goodbye is also usually very emotionally painful. If you are lucky enough to be able to make your peace with those you love before you die that is beautiful, but also very difficult.
Naturally, we want to avoid all forms of pain. If we believe that we won’t actually die one day, then we can avoid thinking about the pain we’ll face in death.
Making Peace with Death
It’s terrifying to consider leaving this world and facing pain as we go. Even if we have faith in reaching Heaven, so many scary unknowns remain.
One option is to deny your death, but this brings psychological suffering with it, especially in your final days. Hospice care is a beautiful service for people who are in their final days. Alternatively, you can begin to make peace with death, today. Begin building mental fortitude for facing your own mortality long before you die.
- Speak openly about death, gleaning wisdom from people who better understand it.
- Sit bedside with people who are ill, serving their practical needs along the way.
- Attend funerals and frequently visit the graves of the loved ones you’ve lost over the years.
- Talk to medical professionals, first responders, chaplains, funeral directors, morticians, pastors and others who regularly face death. Learn from their insights.
- Read about death. One particularly beautiful book is When Breath Becomes Air, a memoir written by Paul Kalanithi, a young Christian doctor dying of cancer in what should have been the prime of his life.
Facing your mortality is not easy. However, if you begin doing this early on, it will reduce your psychological suffering when you near your death.