Death remains a taboo in our culture and yet it is a natural part of our life cycle. My work brings me into contact with it every day. In such a way, death in normalised. I still have a healthy fear. I don’t have all the answers and the question of when and how is always troubling, but my work makes me aware that there is more to death than the instant when life leaves the body, and it is probably more complex than we understand.
I wanted therefore to share some of the more interesting things I’ve learned in my work…
1. Every death is as unique as life
We have become so used to seeing death as the Big Bad that we tend to see it as a single, universal Thing. While it is true that we’ll all die, death is a process, both physical and emotional. Not all deaths can be ‘good’ deaths. Not all can be peaceful. But it is worth recognising that death need not be a sudden, violent and terrible instant. In many cases, it is a quiet fading away. Sometimes the moment is shared with others, sometimes the person is alone. But everyone’s experience will be as unique as the life they lived.
2. Death is not one thing
Medically speaking, death is defined as a combination of symptoms: loss of pelse, breathing, brain function. At first this may sound obvious, but we are used to the idea of a “moment of death” as if there is a nice, easy line to be drawn between life and death. There isn’t. There is no single thing that is death.
3. We have some control over death
Obviously this is not always the case, but there is some evidence that, especially in cases of illness, people can have a little control over the moment when they die. One often hears of people ‘hanging on’ for one last visit. Even stranger is the number of cases of loved ones ‘missing’ their relatives’ deaths. Often this is very upsetting. They have been at a dying person’s side all day, and they leave for a moment to get a drink, only to return to the person dead. But this is recorded so frequently that we can conclude that some people seem to need to wait until they are alone to die. For whatever reason, while farewells are often significant, privacy sometimes seems important.
4. Death feels good
While it is hard to know how it feels to die, scientists are able to monitor the brain. The chemicals that are released just before death are those that relax the body and make you feel good, even high. Many people report bright lights and experiences of leaving their bodies or reuniting with dead relatives. While one can write this off as a physical effect of the release of chemicals in the brain,it is also possible that those feel-good chemicals are released as a result of those experiences.
5. Death is falling asleep
A recent article offers a fascinating insight into the experience of dying. Those who die slowly appear to enter a period of intense dreaming before physical death occurrs. Reality and the world we call imagination overlap and fade into each other. The closest equivalent may well be the experience of falling into a deep, dream-filled sleep.