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SESSION_EXPIRED automatically closes the ZooKeeper handle. In a correctly operating cluster, you should never see SESSION_EXPIRED. It means that the client was partitioned off from the ZooKeeper service for more the the session timeout and ZooKeeper decided that the client died. Because the ZooKeeper service is ground truth, the client should consider itself dead and go into recovery. If the client is only reading state from ZooKeeper, recovery means just reconnecting. In more complex applications, recovery means recreating ephemeral nodes, vying for leadership roles, and reconstructing published state.
Library writers should be conscious of the severity of the expired state and not try to recover from it. Instead libraries should return a fatal error. Even if the library is simply reading from ZooKeeper, the user of the library may also be doing other things with ZooKeeper that requires more complex recovery.
Session expiration is managed by the ZooKeeper cluster itself, not by the client. When the ZK client establishes a session with the cluster it provides a "timeout" value. This value is used by the cluster to determine when the client's session expires. Expirations happens when the cluster does not hear from the client within the specified session timeout period (i.e. no heartbeat). At session expiration the cluster will delete any/all ephemeral nodes owned by that session and immediately notify any/all connected clients of the change (anyone watching those znodes). At this point the client of the expired session is still disconnected from the cluster, it will not be notified of the session expiration until/unless it is able to re-establish a connection to the cluster. The client will stay in disconnected state until the TCP connection is re-established with the cluster, at which point the watcher of the expired session will receive the "session expired" notification.
Example state transitions for an expired session as seen by the expired session's watcher: