March 6, 2021

A Physicist’s View of Death offers Comfort to our Grieving Hearts.

I’m not one who seeks out statistics. 

But I saw a statistic today that is staggering: 2.57 million people who once inhabited this world have died a COVID-19 death within the last year.

I know the families of some of these people. Moms and dads, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters—all are suffering through the grief of losing their beloved.

When I think of the different cultures represented in the tragedies of this global pandemic, I wonder how each person frames the reality of death.

There are many theories about life after death.

Hindus believe in reincarnation—that the soul of a person passes into a new body and life. 

Buddhists believe the soul is reincarnated until nirvana (a release from suffering, desire, or sense of self) is achieved.

The rabbinic traditions see Jews experiencing a heaven-like afterlife. Christians believe they are “going home to Jesus.”

Islam teaches that there is life after death, but a person will be judged and either go to hell or become unified with God.

Atheists, who don’t feel the need to believe in God, believe their afterlife is lived out in the memory of those who have loved them.

Plato believed that the physical world actually limited our knowledge—that when a person dies, they move on to a new, more fulfilling life. His theory was that death gives souls a chance to find their true existence.

No matter what one believes, death anxiety tends to be pretty common.

We worry about our own death and the death of those we love. There is even a word for fear of death and the dying process: thanatophobia.

So, what is it that can bring us comfort as we face the possibility of our own death? 

How can peace be restored to our tender hearts when we have lost a loved one?

Imagine my surprise (and delight) to find the answer in science.

I came upon this transcript of a speech given by writer and performer Aaron Freeman on NPR News’ “All Things Considered.”

What might it be like if we called upon a physicist to put words to a eulogy that would heal our grieving hearts?

Something like this:

“You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed.

You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world.

You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And, at one point, you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you.

And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs, as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable, and consistent across space and time.

You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy is still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly.”

No matter our spiritual beliefs or our religious tradition, I think these words can bring us comfort.

Whether we are missing our beloved pet, grieving for our most precious mother, or facing the tragedy of a child gone too soon, perhaps we can find comfort in knowing that their energy lives on.

It’s just less orderly.

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