Do the dead know they are dead? My parents were both terrified of death. I know this because I was with each when they passed. I’ve always thought there must be a transition period since death would be such a shock to many. Just wondering if it’s like earth where we, hopefully, come to a gradual realization of who we are. Thank you.
Thanks for your question. One of the attributes the Lord has hardwired into our physical bodies is a survival instinct. Fear of death is not a personal shortcoming. It strengthens the resolve to endure and overcome hardship, persecution, and trials. The fear of death deters us from ending our mortal probation prematurely, even when faith in an afterlife is present. Like the “veil of forgetfulness” it is a part of our programming to ensure that the tests of mortality are effective.
One of the best (and readily available sources of information on death and the spirit world is the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, specifically, Chapter 38. (Chapter 38: The Spirit World) This source is full of comforting information about what happens to those who pass to the other side of the veil. I’ve used the information to prepare a number of funeral eulogies. Not surprisingly, even non-Mormons at those services found the teachings of the Church comforting at a time of profound loss.
Here are some citations that address your questions about whether the dead know they are dead and what their experience is like transitioning from mortality to a spiritual existence. President Young taught that spirits are prepared to “see, hear, and understand” when they die.
When the spirits leave their bodies, … they are prepared then to see, hear and understand spiritual things. … Can you see spirits in this room? No. Suppose the Lord should touch your eyes that you might see, could you then see the spirits? Yes, as plainly as you now see bodies, as did the servant of [Elisha] [see 2 Kings 6:16–17]. If the Lord would permit it, and it was his will that it should be done, you could see the spirits that have departed from this world, as plainly as you now see bodies with your natural eyes (DBY, 376–77).
Only a small part of our existence has been in lived in a physical tabernacle of flesh. Being a spirit is natural to us. When we return to that spiritual state, it will not be disorienting or unnatural. President Young declared:
When you are in the spirit world, everything there will appear as natural as things now do. Spirits will be familiar with spirits in the spirit world—will converse, behold, and exercise every variety of communication with one another as familiarly and naturally as while here in tabernacles. There, as here, all things will be natural, and you will understand them as you now understand natural things. You will there see that those spirits we are speaking of are active; they sleep not. And you will learn that they are striving with all their might—laboring and toiling diligently as any individual would to accomplish an act in this world (DBY, 380).
Essentially, returning our spirits to the spiritual world is like putting a fish back into water. We have experience in that state that is much more extensive than our experience within our mortal, physical form.
Spirits are just as familiar with spirits as bodies are with bodies, though spirits are composed of matter so refined as not to be tangible to this coarser organization. They walk, converse, and have their meetings; and the spirits of good men like Joseph and the Elders, who have left this Church on earth for a season to operate in another sphere, are rallying all their powers and going from place to place preaching the Gospel, and Joseph is directing them, saying, go ahead, my brethren, and if they hedge up your way, walk up and command them to disperse. You have the Priesthood and can disperse them, but if any of them wish to hear the Gospel, preach to them (DBY, 379).
The rest of the chapter from the Brigham Young lesson manual has all sorts of other interesting bits of valuable knowledge about life after death that are comforting and reassuring. It is a great blessing to have prophets in the Church, some of whom have seen beyond the veil and recorded what they saw. I highly recommend reading the Teachings of President Brigham Young, an approved, Church-published source on this topic.