8 Popular Essays About Death, Grief & the Afterlife

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Death is a strange topic for many reasons, one of which is the simple fact that different people can have vastly different opinions about discussing it.

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Some fear death so greatly they don’t want to talk about it at all. However, because death is a universal human experience, there are also those who believe firmly in addressing it directly. This may be more common now than ever before due to the rise of the death positive movement and mindset.

You might believe there’s something to be gained from talking and learning about death. If so, reading essays about death, grief, and even near-death experiences can potentially help you begin addressing your own death anxiety. This list of essays and articles is a good place to start. The essays here cover losing a loved one, dealing with grief, near-death experiences, and even what someone goes through when they know they’re dying.

Essays or Articles About the Death of a Loved One

Losing a close loved one is never an easy experience. However, these essays on the topic can help someone find some meaning or peace in their grief.

1. ‘I’m Sorry I Didn’t Respond to Your Email, My Husband Coughed to Death Two Years Ago’ by Rachel Ward

Rachel Ward’s essay about coping with the death of her husband isn’t like many essays about death. It’s very informal, packed with sarcastic humor, and uses an FAQ format. However, it earns a spot on this list due to the powerful way it describes the process of slowly finding joy in life again after losing a close loved one.

Ward’s experience is also interesting because in the years after her husband’s death, many new people came into her life unaware that she was a widow. Thus, she often had to tell these new people a story that’s painful but unavoidable. This is a common aspect of losing a loved one that not many discussions address.

2. ‘Everything I know about a good death I learned from my cat’ by Elizabeth Lopatto

Not all great essays about death need to be about human deaths! In this essay, author Elizabeth Lopatto explains how watching her beloved cat slowly die of leukemia and coordinating with her vet throughout the process helped her better understand what a “good death” looks like.

For instance, she explains how her vet provided a degree of treatment but never gave her false hope (for instance, by claiming her cat was going to beat her illness). They also worked together to make sure her cat was as comfortable as possible during the last stages of her life instead of prolonging her suffering with unnecessary treatments.

Lopatto compares this to the experiences of many people near death. Sometimes they struggle with knowing how to accept death because well-meaning doctors have given them the impression that more treatments may prolong or even save their lives, when the likelihood of them being effective is slimmer than patients may realize.

Instead, Lopatto argues that it’s important for loved ones and doctors to have honest and open conversations about death when someone’s passing is likely near. This can make it easier to prioritize their final wishes instead of filling their last days with hospital visits, uncomfortable treatments, and limited opportunities to enjoy themselves.

3. ‘The terrorist inside my husband’s brain’ by Susan Schneider Williams

This article, which Susan Schneider Williams wrote after the death of her husband Robin Willians, covers many of the topics that numerous essays about the death of a loved one cover, such as coping with life when you no longer have support from someone who offered so much of it. 

However, it discusses living with someone coping with a difficult illness that you don’t fully understand, as well. The article also explains that the best way to honor loved ones who pass away after a long struggle is to work towards better understanding the illnesses that affected them. 

4. ‘Before I Go’ by Paul Kalanithi

“Before I Go” is a unique essay in that it’s about the death of a loved one, written by the dying loved one. Its author, Paul Kalanithi, writes about how a terminal cancer diagnosis has changed the meaning of time for him.

Kalanithi describes believing he will die when his daughter is so young that she will likely never have any memories of him. As such, each new day brings mixed feelings. On the one hand, each day gives him a new opportunity to see his daughter grow, which brings him joy. On the other hand, he must struggle with knowing that every new day brings him closer to the day when he’ll have to leave her life.

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Essays or Articles About Dealing With Grief

Coping with grief can be immensely challenging. That said, as the stories in these essays illustrate, it is possible to manage grief in a positive and optimistic way.

5. Untitled by Sheryl Sandberg

This piece by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s current CEO, isn’t a traditional essay or article. It’s actually a long Facebook post. However, many find it’s one of the best essays about death and grief anyone has published in recent years.

She posted it on the last day of sheloshim for her husband, a period of 30 days involving intense mourning in Judaism. In the post, Sandberg describes in very honest terms how much she learned from those 30 days of mourning, admitting that she sometimes still experiences hopelessness, but has resolved to move forward in life productively and with dignity.

She explains how she wanted her life to be “Option A,” the one she had planned with her husband. However, because that’s no longer an option, she’s decided the best way to honor her husband’s memory is to do her absolute best with “Option B.”

This metaphor actually became the title of her next book. Option B, which Sandberg co-authored with Adam Grant, a psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, is already one of the most beloved books about death, grief, and being resilient in the face of major life changes. It may strongly appeal to anyone who also appreciates essays about death as well.

6. ‘My Own Life’ by Oliver Sacks

Grief doesn’t merely involve grieving those we’ve lost. It can take the form of the grief someone feels when they know they’re going to die.

Renowned physician and author Oliver Sacks learned he had terminal cancer in 2015. In this essay, he openly admits that he fears his death. However, he also describes how knowing he is going to die soon provides a sense of clarity about what matters most. Instead of wallowing in his grief and fear, he writes about planning to make the very most of the limited time he still has.

Essays or Articles About the Afterlife or Near-Death Experiences

Belief in (or at least hope for) an afterlife has been common throughout humanity for decades. Additionally, some people who have been clinically dead report actually having gone to the afterlife and experiencing it themselves.

Whether you want the comfort that comes from learning that the afterlife may indeed exist, or you simply find the topic of near-death experiences interesting, these are a couple of short articles worth checking out.

7. ‘My Experience in a Coma’ by Eben Alexander

“My Experience in a Coma” is a shortened version of the narrative Dr. Eben Alexander shared in his book, Proof of Heaven. Alexander’s near-death experience is unique, as he’s a medical doctor who believes that his experience is (as the name of his book suggests) proof that an afterlife exists. He explains how at the time he had this experience, he was clinically braindead, and therefore should not have been able to consciously experience anything.

Alexander describes the afterlife in much the same way many others who’ve had near-death experiences describe it. He describes starting out in an “unresponsive realm” before a spinning white light that brought with it a musical melody transported him to a valley of abundant plant life, crystal pools, and angelic choirs. He states he continued to move from one realm to another, each realm higher than the last, before reaching the realm where the infinite love of God (which he says is not the “god” of any particular religion) overwhelmed him.

8. “One Man's Tale of Dying—And Then Waking Up” by Paul Perry

The author of this essay recounts what he considers to be one of the strongest near-death experience stories he’s heard out of the many he’s researched and written about over the years. The story involves Dr. Rajiv Parti, who claims his near-death experience changed his views on life dramatically.

Parti was highly materialistic before his near-death experience. During it, he claims to have been given a new perspective, realizing that life is about more than what his wealth can purchase. He returned from the experience with a permanently changed outlook.

This is common among those who claim to have had near-death experiences. Often, these experiences leave them kinder, more understanding, more spiritual, and less materialistic.

This short article is a basic introduction to Parti’s story. He describes it himself in greater detail in the book Dying to Wake Up, which he co-wrote with Paul Perry, the author of the article.

Essays About Death: Discussing a Difficult Topic

It’s completely natural and understandable to have reservations about discussing death. However, because death is unavoidable, talking about it and reading essays and books about death instead of avoiding the topic altogether is something that benefits many people. Sometimes, the only way to cope with something frightening is to address it.

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