One of the most common topics of conversation around dying and death is what comes after. We can imagine that this kind of speculation goes back millennia, wherever humans gathered around someone who, in one moment, was there and, in the next moment, was gone. Gone where?

I was raised on stories about heaven and hell, purgatory, and limbo. Later I learned about Tibetan Buddhist Bardos, the Norse Valhalla, and the Greek’s Hades, among other realms of the dead. Then there are the passages from here to there, for example, tunnels of light or the ferryboat on the river Styx. The traveler might be alone or accompanied by angels, loved ones, or the ferryman.

Here is how I imagine it to be based on my experiences with individuals in the messy, complex realities of the dying process and afterwards.

The process begins some period of time before the last breath. Might be days. Might be weeks. Someone with whom this person had a relationship begins to get in touch perhaps in a dream or a bit of synchronicity or a coincidence. Might be a person or a once beloved pet. This being will accompany the person through the passage. There is the beginning of an ingathering of energy and focus similar to the caterpillar beginning to spin the cocoon.

Eventually the person exhales and never inhales again. Who they used to be begins to make the journey across the expanse on their way to what comes after. I imagine this to be a life review but more about that later.

Given what a mess most people are when they die— physically, emotionally, mentally— the first challenge is recovery. I imagine that many are met at the end of the tunnel by angels and an ambulance. Next stop is detox, healing and orientation. Once the person is strong enough, the next phase is an immersion in an expanded version of the 12-step process, working both in a group and with a sponsor. The teachers are angels; the sponsors are humans who have been through the process themselves. From there a person might be invited to do more individual and group work and, perhaps, also work with family members who are in their own program.

The goal is a thorough life review focused on discovery and healing in preparation for the next step.

Part of that healing is making amends where possible. This is where I find the concept of purgatory valid. To face up to the harm one has done is painful. Shame is hot. It takes courage to stay in the experience. Some of the pain is being helpless to make amends. But what a relief when all is revealed and owned and processed!