The Moment of Awareness of Death

The bomb explodes over Hiroshima.  People are incinerated without warning.  For these poor souls, the moment of death is simply 8:15 AM, August 6, 1945.  At Ground Zero, there is no time for people to become aware of what has happened, or to consciously register its impact upon their bodies:  they are instantly and completely gone.

On the other extreme, a child is born.  It is perhaps always aware of the risk of death on some subconscious level, but years will pass before it gains a meaningful sense of what death can entail.  And then, much later, that child matures into old age, winding into a gradual senescence that terminates with a long-anticipated and perhaps unfeared eclipse.

There are, in short, multiple possibilities for a person’s death.  Everyone gets a chronological moment of death, a point on the clock when they cease to be alive.  Everyone also gets a physical experience of dying, starting when brain and body begin to expire, and ending when that process is complete – sometimes within an instant, sometimes unfolding over hours or even weeks (e.g., Pitorak, 2003, p. 44; Sigrist, 1996).  But not everyone gets a period of advance warning, during which they can get their thoughts and affairs in order; nor does everyone experience a conscious awareness that death has arrived.

Among those who do become aware that their death is now underway, for some that awareness proves to be a false alarm:  they don’t die after all, or they come back to life after being more or less officially dead.  Among those who come back from such close confrontations with death, some report unusual experiences.  These include “panoramic” memory or life review experiences, widely known as the phenomenon in which “my whole life passed before my eyes,” although it appears that these may be better understood as a part of the larger phenomenon of the near-death experience (NDE).  Particularly because of their supernatural claims (involving e.g., movement through a tunnel toward a bright light, encounters with people who have died, visions of otherworldly places), NDEs remain controversial.  A number of interesting pieces of recent research (e.g., Agrillo, 2011; Waxman, 2012; Thonnard et al., 2013; Greyson, 2010) suggest, nonetheless, that readers who are not narrowmindedly precommitted to purely materialist explanations at all costs may find much to think about in NDE accounts.

The experiences and observations reported in NDE accounts do not seem typical for the majority of people who suddenly become aware that death is near.  For a sense of what people usually feel in situations of fatal injury (as distinct from the more drawn-out dying scenarios mentioned above), a review of various accounts yields quotes like these:

  • Gosline:  “Death comes in many guises, but one way or another it is usually a lack of oxygen to the brain that delivers the coup de grâce. . . . If the flow of freshly oxygenated blood to the brain is stopped, through whatever mechanism, people tend to have about 10 seconds before losing consciousness.”  But it takes longer if there continues to be some oxygen.  In drowning, for example, the minute or two of struggling to stay afloat ends with “a feeling of tearing and a burning sensation in the chest as water goes down into the airway. Then that sort of slips into a feeling of calmness and tranquility.”  Bleeding to death:  “Anyone losing 1.5 litres . . . feels weak, thirsty and anxious, and would be breathing fast.  By 2 litres, people experience dizziness, confusion and then eventual unconsciousness.”  Emotions may range from fear to calm, depending on extent of injuries.  Decapitation:  “Reports from post-revolutionary France cited movements of the eyes and mouth for 15 to 30 seconds after the blade struck, although these may have been post-mortem twitches and reflexes.”  Falling:  “Survivors of great falls often report the sensation of time slowing down. . . . Some experienced climbers or skydivers who have survived a fall report feeling focused, alert and driven to ensure they landed in the best way possible.”
  • Aron:  “As your brain begins to shut down you feel what I can only discribe as the essence of your existance, the core concepts of your psyche, bleeding out of you.  Concepts like honor, honesty, bravery, integrity, humility . . . become harder and harder to find.  Simultaneously, you are struck with the coldest, harshest reality imaginable; you are done.  Everything you’ve worked for in life, everything you ever dreamed about, all the pain, the struggle, the hardship, the reward, the victory, everything, is now worthless.  Your past means nothing, your wishes for the future are pointless, and even you in the present are pathetic and tiny compared to the behemoth that approaches you.”
  • Begley:  “As the brain runs out of oxygen, it closes down noncritical functions first. Sight, hearing and consciousness fade out, as though by the gradual twist of a dimmer switch. Pain vanishes. . . . People who bleed to death first hyperventilate . . . . [but] the heart and then brain slow. A flood of natural opiates called endorphins washes over the brain, bringing on both tranquillity and hallucinations . . . . Half of all patients who die conscious and in a hospital, a 1995 study found, suffered moderate to severe pain” though hopefully that has improved with better use of painkillers.
  • Scoville:  “Anyone who has been shot will know it’s just the absolute coldness that goes through your body. . . . [feelings like] hot gravel . . . getting hit with a baseball bat . . . a red hot poker going through you . . . . The human pupil may dilate during a shooting, leaving the viewer with the impression of seeing things through a tube as everything else blends into the white periphery. . . . Additional sensory deprivation may take the form of auditory exclusion. . . . [The body produces epinephrine;] the effects of pain may be diminished, and you may view your surroundings in muted colors or find it difficult to carry out simple tasks. . . . [T]he mind may lock on a variety of visual cues in . . . adrenaline-enhanced acuity . . . a sense of disorientation . . . . [Victims] may also find they need to empty their bladders or evacuate their bowels. . . . [B]reathing may become difficult, making you feel as though you are going to hyperventilate.”
  • Orwell:  getting shot:  “Roughly speaking it was the sensation of being at the center of an explosion. There seemed to be a loud bang and a blinding flash of light all around me, and I felt a tremendous shock [and] . . . with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shriveled up to nothing. . . . [M]y knees crumpled up and I was falling, my head hitting the ground with a violent bang which, to my relief, did not hurt. I had a numb, dazed feeling, a consciousness of being very badly hurt, but no pain in the ordinary sense. . . . As soon as I knew that the bullet had gone clean through my neck I took it for granted I was done for. . . . Everything was very blurry.”  See also Meredith and Kevlar Kid.
  • Rose offers a number of accounts, including these:  (1) “I was ejected from my motorcycle headfirst. . . . It felt as though I was sinking into a deep dark pool of water.  Everything around me was black and the world we live in kept getting smaller and smaller. . . . It was like I was sinking slowly into a world of unknown.  Sound began to act as though it was farther and farther away.  In a strange way, I felt in peace.  My pain was gone and the weight of the world passed me by.  I recall having memories of my friends and family.”  (2) “To me it felt a bit like slipping into a dream. . . . [I]t felt peaceful, almost uplifting. . . . Then my vision came back. . . . dim at first, very fuzzy, then everything got brighter and more defined.”  (3) “You feel like you’re going to the deepest sleep (in fact you are) and when waking you’re confused as hell and don’t really understand what happened . . . . Extremely unnerving and scary in a detached way. . . . No memories of the other side, just that feeling of being so unbelievably tired and that if I just slept everything would be OK.”

Only a minority of such accounts describe a specific awareness (discussed in another post) that time has stopped or slowed down.  But perhaps that sensation pervades many experiences of dying.  It certainly seems that people at the brink of death often experience numerous unusual thoughts and sensations, telescoped into a very brief timeframe.

What emerges from these assorted accounts is a sense of negation – of the future, of oneself, of the things that people worry about, of feeling and thought, of the body.  Death seems to operate as a negation of life, not only in the general sense that the two are commonly recognized as opposites, but also at this granular level, as life’s specific attributes are rolled up until nothing is left.  While accounts of NDEs and these other accounts of death differ in important ways, in one sense they are parallel:  death means leaving this life behind.  In life, possibilities proliferate; in death, life’s possibilities all vanish.

There is a certain irony in the prospect that, for all its ambitions and enterprises, all its noise and tumult, life inevitably fails after a period of mere years — whereas death, a singular moment that collapses it all back to zero, ushers in some kind of eternity.  Life’s continuous Now, running for generations, offers one expression of what a moment can be, within human experience; death’s full stop offers an alternative.  The foregoing accounts of experience at the moment of death tend to be preoccupied with the ending of life, as distinct from the beginning of death.  There is perhaps not much to say about a simple termination; or if there is, evidently it would be out of character for death to say it.

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