I can't say I know for sure what happens after you die, but I have a pretty good idea because I talk to dead people on the regular.
I'm a medium, which means that I can hear, see, and feel the dead. It's not scary, though—it's more like Ghost with Whoopi Goldberg (when she's not scamming people) than it is like Poltergeist. This entire concept may seem super weird to you, but it's just another day in the life for me. Just last week I was talking to a dead man who came around to give fashion advice to my friend, Sahar. She was set to speak at his memorial in Oakland and had packed fashionably uncomfortable shoes. He admonished her to just wear kicks. (He also said a lot of deep shit, but the shoes thing really got to her because he was always talking about her shoes when he was alive.)
No matter what anybody says, there's only one way to know definitively what happens after you die: kick the bucket. Anyone who tells you differently is both cocky and distinctly alive. Don't get me wrong, I have some pretty deep convictions about what comes next, but I couldn't say I know. What I can say is that there is no such thing as death. I mean, of course we die. The body gives its big heave-ho and stops functioning, and the soul/spirit—which is your essential you-ness—can no longer live with it. That for sure exists. But from my perspective, our soul doesn't reside in the body; it's the body that lives in the soul. So when the body is done doing what it came here to do, our soul keeps on trucking. It's easy to get caught up in some very human thinking when you try and figure out what comes next, so I will say it in the words of Gertrude Stein: "there is no there there."
My job as a medium is not to track the dead down to ask them what they're doing "over there." It's just to talk to them, to try to help them out, or to facilitate a conversation between them and the living. They'll often show me how they felt when they died or how they looked at their happiest times. Talking to dead people is way more mundane than you'd think. Sometimes it's chill, and sometimes it's super deep. It's really just talking to people without bodies; the best way I can explain it is that I see and listen with my whole self instead of just my eyes and ears.
Once, in my early days working as a medium, a woman came in for a reading and said that she felt a presence in her home and was convinced that her grandmother was trying to get a message to her. I energetically looked at Thelma's (name changed to protect privacy of course) home, and sensed that, yes, her grandmother (let's call her Louise) was in the house.
She was very insistent to get a message to her granddaughter, and what she said shocked me: She said, "Grab your husband's cash. Start siphoning away his money. Do it now!" I almost didn't tell Thelma what I heard because she had this deep love for her Nanny and was hoping for a heartfelt and inspiring message from the great beyond. But it's not my place to edit the messages of the dead, so I told her. Thelma started laughing her ass off—her grandmother had been money-obsessed, and in the later years of their marriage, her grandfather had gambled away their savings. Louise never got over it and now was coming from the beyond to tell her granddaughter to steal from the love of her life. Our values, passions, and bullshit go where we go, as we go, friends.
If you die a dick, you're still a dick. Die with guilt, and the guilt goes with you. Like all huge and transformative experiences, death can bring with it a purging or a healing, but it's not a certainty. Think of all the times you could've had peace, freedom, or even just a break, but you weren't able to claim it. Rising to the occasion takes effort, and you've gotta believe you're worth it to have the gonads to live your life well.
The idea of Heaven and Hell as physical locations with material rewards and punishments are mere constructs that are easy for people to grasp, but as far as I can tell, there are no places when there's no physical form. We don't technically go to a where; and without the marker of where, the when takes on another, less measureable dimension. It's not romantic, it's not always lovely or terrible, and it's not an easy thing to describe. Just like life. Because it is life, just a different experience of life. It's hard to talk about this stuff because, as material beings, we only have language and the context of a material understanding of reality. Language itself is a material thing, making it extremely hard to avoid platitudes when talking about all of this stuff. If I've lost you, hold on to this much, my friends: We are so much more than our bodies.
I've talked to countless dead people who had compromised their calling to appease others and had regrets about it. My takeaway from that is we should stop trying to be anyone else but who we are. Don't be a douche; do what you came here to do.
Once a soul has shed the body, we enter into what I think of as a "cocoon phase," where we're insulated, protected, and safe. It's a phase that lets us adjust to where we're at and to let go of the material life we've just left. This cycle seems to be a lot easier for children, people who have a peaceful relationship with spirituality or death, and those who knew their time was coming. Because there's no body, there's no time, so how long a soul stays there is not relevant. You stay for as long as you do.
To wrap your head around the no-time thing, think about it the same way you think of dreaming; you can sleep for 15 minutes and wake up feeling like it's been hours, or you can get a full eight hours and wake up feeling like it was minutes. When you're not in your body, time is different because time is a body thing. You don't have to trust me on this one; ask a ladybug. Or a dog. They live very different life spans than each other or us. So don't get hung up on how long a person chills in that space because there is no time to worry about. In my experience, when people are in the cocoon phase, they're not really available for interaction, and loved ones can't easily feel their presence. Think of it as a spa treatment for the soul with a "do not disturb" sign on the door. The soul isn't unreachable, but it's kind of rude to push.
Once a soul leaves the cocoon phase, it stays resonant with its personality for any length of our measure of time. Often people stick around for those they've left behind out of love or loyalty, but I don't have access to their itinerary and experiences. As a medium, I'm a conduit for messages. Think of me as psychic radio. But I do know that at a certain point, a soul will fill up to a state of wholeness, become less like their personality, and get filled up with the light of their essential self, and it's amazingly cool. Talking to a person when they've transformed beyond their personality is beautiful; it's like they're farther away and closer at the same time. I don't see light the way you see it in movies where a person becomes this great ball of white light, but the energy we become is more like light than anything I can compare it to. It's a beautiful thing to know that life doesn't end, it keeps on changing shapes bringing us along for the ride.