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A reader writes:

I wanted to tack this onto the post "At The Hour of Their Death."

12 years ago my mothers passed away after a 9-month battle with cancer. I was in the room as her body gave up her spirit. It was that clear. Her forced breathing. The tension in her neck and face. The physical energy left inside the very sick and very emaciated body must have been so little, but the change in her appearance at that final moment was vast. Her body gave up her spirit. The air in the room took on a very distinct quality. It seemed a moment when anything could happen. That the air could shimmer and tear apart and I would not have been surprised.

The air was similar at the birth of my three children. When my children were born anything could happen. The air was filled with a remarkable energy. A moment when all laws of nature, all science, all proof, everything man knows about existence and life was so limited. Religion is not all about "fear of death" - it is also because we have all witnessed things that science and learning cannot explain.

Another reader:

Atheists, from my own experience (and I did not always identify myself this way; I still prefer god-free to atheist, as it implies being against something), don’t think about death much at all, except when we ponder its inevitability, our own experiences of loss, and the way it has of telescoping time.

When my partner died in 1991 I’d been mostly an atheist, though I didn’t spend much time defining that for myself.  But when he died, I had an experience similar to the nurse’s.  I was suddenly convinced that he had been a person, a spirit, and now he was gone.  I searched and wondered, and I started going to a church I’m still fond of and will still attend from time to time.  I was most perplexed by where he went.  Many years later, I’m at peace with the whole issue.  I need neither to believe not to disbelieve.

 Your reader's sense that the people who died in her presence were gone is quite accurate and there’s nothing supernatural to it.  But the underlying sense she has, and that I had, that the person had gone somewhere, is at the heart of the matter.  We are indeed gone when we die, but we do not go anywhere.  It is the living we leave behind who grapple with the question of where we have gone, and interpret the experience to mean there is somewhere to go and our spirits have left our bodies en route.  What leaves our bodies is life, and life is energy.  So, yes, we are here and then we are not, and it’s all quite mystical and profound, but it does not require an afterlife of anything but silence.  Why that is not enough for so many, many, many people is something I understand but don’t participate in.  An anecdote has it that when the Buddha was asked if god exists, he remained silent.  I have always loved that.  He did not say yes and he did not say no.  I interpret that to mean that he had no need to answer the question.

A final reader:

Your reader's reference to a "palpable feeling of departure" when someone dies reminded me of a couple of scenes from the movie (and person) "Temple Grandin".  Ms. Grandin is a highly functioning autistic person whose autism seems to have bestowed upon her an unusual ability to observe and recall small details.  In the movie, there is a scene in which she witnesses a cow's instantaneous death in a slaughterhouse.  "Where does it go?", she asks the slaughterhouse manager, who thinks she is asking what the next step is in processing the cow into beef.  But really what she wants to know is, one second there was a cow there, the next second there was only beef - so where did the living, aware cow GO?
 
Later in the movie she asks the same question at the funeral of a teacher who meant a great deal to her.  She is not saddened to see the body, but she still wants to know, where did he GO?  Temple does not experience the emotional loss of death the way most of us do, but she is acutely able to sense that something has left the body.

(Photo: Terminally ill patient Jackie Beattie, 83, touches a dove on October 7, 2009 while at the Hospice of Saint John in Lakewood, Colorado. The dove releases are part of an animal therapy program designed to increase happiness, decrease loneliness and calm terminally ill patients during the last stage of life. The non-profit hospice, which serves on average 200 people at a time, is the second oldest hospice in the United States. The hospice accepts patients regardless of their ability to pay, although most are covered by Medicare or Medicaid. By John Moore/Getty Images.)

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