To everything there is a season. A time to be born, and a time to die.
For some it's grandma or grandpa. For others it's mom or dad. For some it's a brother, a sister, a friend, or a lover. Whoever it is, whenever it is, one thing is for sure, at some point, we have all experienced the sting of death.
We often talk so much about the beginning of life. We throw parties to find out what the birth-gender of the baby is, and then we throw another party to shower them with gifts. And then we throw another party once they spend their first 12 months on this Earth and every 12 months after that.
We share stories about the day we were born, albeit stories we cannot remember ourselves and have only formed from the pieces we've been told by different sources.
We talk a lot about birth, but usually never about death. Most times, the first we’re forced to speak of it, it has already taken someone we love. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We are all going to die someday. So we might at least talk about it while we still can.
Here is... to death.
As everyone knows, death is the end of… well, everything for you. It’s when all the body’s vital functions stop permanently. Your heart stops beating, your breath seizes, you lose all brain activity.
Their heart is failing and the body is now experiencing circulation changes. Their heartbeat is becoming fainter and their skin no longer radiates like the summer sun. The pale grey-blue of winter starts to take over, most visibly on the knees, hands, and legs.
Their breathing becomes erratic. Sometimes it’s slow, sometimes it’s fast. Sometimes it's faint, sometimes it’s loud. Cheyne-Stokes is happening now. They take several breaths then a long pause with no breathing at all. And just when we think they’re gone, they gasp and take yet another breath.
They’re not there yet. But they’re close. In a few hours they’ll take another long pause, but then, there will be no gasp to break the silence.
When most people are about to leave us to the other side of life, they claim to feel a sense of readiness. Like they’re wrapped around mother nature’s arms, similar to the feeling of a baby in their mother’s womb.
There’s a sense of comfort. A sense of completion. A sense of peace. People are often well aware of what is coming next and can even hold on for something significant to happen before giving up the ghost.
You might wait for your mother to come so you can tell her you appreciate everything she did for you as a child. Or perhaps place a call through to a friend to tell them you forgive them for everything they did wrong to you. Or maybe you’re waiting to hold your kids in your arms again, or kiss your partner on the cheek one last time.
When death comes knocking, we often already know who’s at the door. We prepare ourselves and ready our houses before walking out the door, locking it, and throwing out the key.
As we walk out the door, we gradually become confused, we slip into an unconscious state one last time as we draw the curtains to what was our life. We die.
Time of death: 10:03pm.
Everything that happens up until this point, we know and understand. But everything that happens afterward, is still a complete mystery to us.
The craziest thing about death is that we often describe it as irreversible. What is dead will stay dead. But there are thousands of people out there who have been medically described as dead but have come back, carrying with them tons of incredible stories.
We call these Near Death Experiences. Because again, we believe if it was actual death, they wouldn’t be alive to tell the story. But is that true? We just might never know.
There’s a wealth of information out there with regards to near-death experiences. People who have been medically described as dead for hours and, some, days, come back to life with stories of out-of-body experiences, memories of their time in the after life, down to some incredible specifics about this side of life that they couldn’t have made up.
One thing many people who have near death experiences agree upon is the fact that the phrase “life flashes before your eyes” is very true. Just before the heart flatlines, we’re often presented a view of our entire life. However, it’s not like we think it is. It’s not the big moments in life that flash before our eyes. It’s not the wedding, the graduation, the first time you heard the cry of your child. It’s just random stuff.
It’s riding your bike as a kid, sitting at your desk and randomly checking your mail, staring at a white cat while climbing a flight of stairs. It’s the things we don’t give any thought to, the moments we usually don’t remember in life, that are brought before us in the face of death.
If you thought staring at a white cat while climbing a flight of stairs was oddly specific, well, it’s because it is. A young man who went through a near death experience saw this moment as one of life’s flashes. However, he could not remember ever being on that staircase or seeing a white cat. So after he was resuscitated, he was able to draw the layout of the staircase, the apartment it led to, and describe the cat to his mother. And she told him that they had once lived in that exact building with the same staircase and apartment layout, and they had lived there with someone who owned a white cat. Not such a crazy story, until you realize that he and his mother moved out of that apartment when he was just 14 months old.
This begs the question, are all our memories still in there, even the ones we’ve forgotten? When we die do we get to see everything that we thought we forgot during our time on this side of life? Is what is gone only gone temporarily?
One of the reasons death is scary to a lot of people is that it seems very lonely. You came into this world alone, but do we leave alone? Many people who have had near death experiences explain that they saw a dead relative there to either escort them to the afterlife, or tell them it wasn’t their time yet. But whichever one it was, death was definitely not as lonely as we might think.
Whether this was simply a figment of their imagination trying to reassure them and make them comfortable in their last few moments, or it was really the spirit or soul of their dead relatives is something that we’ll never be able to say for sure. However, what we do know is that death for most people is not lonely, or at least does not feel that way.
Speaking of the soul, this is one concept that science has not been able to figure out yet, or at least have some kind of explanation for. But with the number of near death experiences associated with an out of body experience, it might be time to start rethinking whether it’s something that can even be explained by science.
I once came across the story of a freshman in college who had just overdosed on sleeping meds. They flatlined in the ambulance and were declared legally dead for 3 minutes. However, they experienced everything in the ambulance, not from their own eyes, but from a third-person view. An out of body experience.
What was striking was they saw the EMT who was trying to resuscitate them in the ambulance, minty green hair, so distinct you couldn’t miss it. After they were stabilized at the hospital, three days later, they asked for this EMT. The EMT who they had seen while they were dead was a real person. The out of body experience they had while in the ambulance was filled with real memories of them lying down on the ambulance floor, machines beating, and EMTs struggling to bring them back.
You hear things like this and you have to pause and wonder, do we really not have a soul, whatever that may be? Are we literally just made of random atoms and molecules responding to stimuli that mother nature throws at us? Or perhaps are we something more?
These are the stories and experiences of the people who have managed to escape the permanence of death and have battle scars to show for it.
However, for most, what is death remains dead. And so around 1-2 weeks later, it’s time to say our final goodbyes.
Much of what we know about human history is down to how we’ve buried our dead. From tombs to mummies, dead people have given us more information than the living left behind.
The oldest known intentional burial site dates to around 10,000 years ago in Qafzeh, Israel. The remains of the dead were put carefully in a coffin together with items such as garments, trinkets, and food. And these coffins were then placed carefully in a cave.
There was also evidence in this cave that the living painted the remains of the dead, threw parties and great feasts to honor their passing, and people were buried in groups of families.
This means that even as far back as 10,000 years ago, humanity understood the significance of death and the need to celebrate a life well spent.
To date, many different cultures do funerals differently. Most people sit together to reminisce about the life once lived, talking about all the good the person did while they were alive. Many religious organizations pray over the remains to give them a favorable outcome in the after life.
But what that afterlife is is different for different people.
Abrahamic religions believe that your actions on this Earth determine where you spend eternity afterwards. Families are encouraged to be strong in the face of death as we would all eventually be reconnected when we cross to the other side. For some other religions like Hindu, what is dead shall be reborn.
After the ceremonies and prayers, the bodies are buried or cremated and the living that are gathered disperse in a bid to heal from the hurt of losing someone.
The Months That Follow
Even when we expect it, death is extremely painful. Because the idea of losing someone isn’t the same as actually losing them and mourning the relationship that once was. And although we are fully aware that these things can happen and that they are part of the human experience, when we are faced with the harsh reality, the feeling of grief can be excruciating.
The finality of death is its scariest attribute. The waking up one morning and realizing that everything we once had, shared, experienced, they’re all gone... forever. The fact that all we’ll have of those experiences are memories. Old memories we cannot recreate, and new memories we cannot form.
But more often than not, these experiences give us a new perspective on life. It reaffirms the reality of the brevity of life and gives us the courage to experience all that we can in the short time we have on this Earth.
It teaches us to be good people while we’re alive because we won’t be there to defend ourselves when eulogies are being read about us as we lie in an open casket.
And in the end, we are better equipped to help people going through the same thing, because people are better comforted by others who have had a similar experience. Seeing someone just like you survive through their own loss gives you a sense of hope that maybe, just maybe, you too will be able to pull through.
When you’re sitting there staring at your loved one who is about to die, understand that death is normally not as painful and troubling for the person dying as it is for you.
For the next two hours, sit with them, squeeze their hands in yours. Talk about all the beautiful things in life, about shared experiences, about their kids and pets, their lovers and friends.
Talk about a life worth living till its last breath. Talk about a life well spent. Talk about death.
The Earth will keep spinning, the birds will keep chirping, but eventually, everything has an end.
- EE, MM