What does dying feel like?

(This entry is not finely tuned or heavily edited. Just a few things I’m thinking about that I couldn’t seem to stop thinking about until they were written down.)

“Each heart beat is death’s punctual answer to the fearful question of the heart and life’s evasive answer to the enigmatic question of death.” -Edmond Jabes

Robert Wallace Blair

This is Robert Wallace Blair.
(I want you to know who the world will be losing.)

My grandpa says it feels like flying through space.

The trigger is coughing—just coughing, really—and then there’s this scattered look in his eyes. He can’t feel his body, he says (describing it after), and he feels like he’s floating through the clouds. “I don’t think I’m dying,” he says. And it’s almost a joke. Almost a joke, like the way he casually responds “cancer” when I ask what the new bandage is for (emergency surgery removed two malignant growths yesterday). Almost a joke, like the way he says, “I wonder if you’ll be here when I die. I wonder if you’ll hear my last words. I think my last words might be, ‘Darn it!‘”

Almost a joke, and almost beautiful: Like flying through space.

My theory is oxygen. Based on what a few different nurses have said, the cause of the problem is either the lack of air from coughing or the way his blood-pressure changes when he coughs. Either (or both) would prevent as much oxygen from reaching his brain, which would cause the least vital parts of his brain to shut down, bit by bit. The frontal lobe, where conscious thought takes place, is much less vital than the part of the brain that controls all the details of breathing and heart rate and so on, so the gradual spin as parts of conscious experience shut off could create an experience like the one he described.

“I wonder if that will be what dying feels like,” he says.

Yeah. Probably. To speculate, the body would shut down gradually, not all at once, in cases like his. The most likely causes of his death will be related to these blood-pressure issues. The experience will probably shut his brain down part by part, starting at the pre-frontal cortex and moving backward. The floating sensation will become a sort of dream unconsciousness, which will then move into a shutdown of the emotional systems. Based on description from those who have experienced this gradual shutdown of the emotional centers, this may well be characterized by a sense of euphoria.

It seems to be during this process that we go through a surge of memories—the “life flashing before my eyes” experience—which also creates a vivid sense of familiarity and belonging. While the exact causes of the “bright tunnel” effect are uncertain, this has been described many times by those with near-death experiences, and a similar experience has been reported by would-be astronauts who undergo G-force training so intense it pushes the blood to the back of their brains. [1]

Many report seeing family, especially family members who would have been present in the early life of the now-departing. I’m going to set aside the possibility that this is the direct expression of an afterlife wherein one’s family is, in some spiritual sense, actually present. The description seems incompatible with the Judeo-Christian heaven when these descriptions are given by those who have near-death experiences; the Judeo-Christian God, presumably all-knowing, would be a bit of a tease if he arranged a family reunion for a person who is only visiting for a few minutes.

With the afterlife explanation set aside, the next best explanation of the reported presence of family may be that these are the primary figures of the last set of memories in the “flash.” The shutdown of memory is accompanied by a shutdown of temporal awareness, which could lead to a chronological scramble; everything from that point forward will be displaced in chronology or seem to have no chronology at all. The earliest memories are also the ones with the most vivid emotional, non-verbalized components, and are the most ingrained and lasting (at least if we can trust evidence from Alzheimer patients). In a time-less “dream state” and (in the case of near-death experiencers trying to make sense of the experience post-recovery) in its aftermath, it would be natural for the associative mind to give these vivid memory-conjured figures a leading role.

The shutdown of the remainder of the body is hard to detail, what with chronology being inapplicable and the sensations normally associated with the body being stopped short, but the lack of an emotional or cognitive experience is likely to make this part of the process fairly disconnected from what we term the “self.”

Presumably, it’s after this mental process that any sort of afterlife would commence. After all, people have been brought back from approximately here and have indicated these images followed by a sort of zero state—with the return to life happening as if no time has passed at all. (Care to make this even friendlier to religion? When Christ raised Lazarus, the story’s conspicuous lack of description of Lazarus’s experience during four days of death seems to imply something similar; the main result you can read into the aftermath of Lazarus’s resurrection is that Lazarus felt hungry. [2])

If the element of our mind we describe as “self” detaches and then re-attaches to another life form (as in reincarnation) or a spiritual form (as in a Judeo-Christian afterlife), we’re likely to experience this as being “next second.” Without a brain to keep track of the subjective experience of time, any other possibility seems unlikely. In a scenario where we didn’t return to life, however, we’re likely to “experience” something similar to the middle portion of going under for surgery via anesthesia.

It was when I went under for the first time that I got over a large part of my fear of dying. The sense of time collapsing in, so moments that were hours apart felt like they weren’t separated at all, made me feel relieved in a way. If having your conscious mind shut down felt like “nothing” in that sense, with no self to be aware of the nothingness, then it became kind of liberating. In Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Shadow willingly chooses this afterlife from among all possible alternatives.[3]

To be clear, I’m a Buddhist-atheist who doesn’t believe in an afterlife for the “self”—which is to say, the “ego self,” the self I’ve attached a name to and tell myself I am. The person who has my memories, who has created and was created by the abstract concept of “Rob,” is not something I believe will endure. I believe in a certain form of reincarnation: I believe that the matter I come into contact with and am made up of will certainly continue in the universe as part of other forms of life and non-life. These molecules have tasted supernovas, have flowed from the big bang to this very moment, and they’ve got billions of years before the universe falls into the sort of complete entropy that’s unable to sustain matter.

I’m also open to the idea that some essential self (distinct from, but in certain ways tied to, the “ego self”) may continue, although I see no reason why this essential self would retain my memories or preoccupations (most of which I see as stemming from the fact of being a human in a human body with a human mind). Even assuming some imprint of my memories could exist outside of my mind, what would this spirit self do without the chemicals of the human brain? The sensations of the body? Time as we think of it? [4] Movement as we think of it? Relationships reliant on a deeply mental-physical experience, where sound vibrations and cognition and touch and color all play such vital roles? If “I” were to enter an animal body, I can’t see why my essential self would be concerned with the troubles of the now-gone human self when the world of squirrel self lay open before me. How would that squirrel mind even begin to process what it was to be a human?

I can talk about this in a detached way, but it’s not that I don’t have a fear of death. It’s just that I recognize that a fear of death is likely to disappear along with everything else that death strips from us. Being in a state of nothingness—not being alive, not being this person—may be intimidating, but the truth is I’ve spent the vast majority of the history of the universe not being alive as Rob, and I don’t recall minding it so much in those 14.2 billion years. The fact that I’ll be spending the remainder of the universe in that same state of “not-Rob” may be a big deal right now, but the Universe will go on without me and I’ll spend the rest of its many billions of years not minding that I’m no longer alive.

“Well, I think I’ve got days to live,” said my grandfather. It wasn’t so much “only days” as it was “at least days,” a reassurance that it wouldn’t be that evening or that night—that there would be some opportunities yet. He said this two weeks ago, so let’s make that clear: days can become weeks or even months. But “final days” feels appropriate, if only because “weeks” can too easily sound like months or years, and optimism needs to have its limits.

Death is a problem of the living, not of the dead. Besides hellish torture, there really isn’t a scenario where the dead must continue to feel angry, resentful, or frightened about death. When my grandpa dies, he won’t be struggling with it anymore. We, the living, will have the chance to mourn the loss—and try to find our way in a universe without him.

“I wouldn’t be me without my grandpa,” I once told a girl that I once loved. “So when he’s gone, where does that leave me? What does that make me?” I’m still trying to answer that question.

Perhaps the most painful thing about knowing my grandpa is in the final days is knowing that we, the living, will be losing one of the most amazing people that I’ve ever met, and the vast majority of the world won’t even know it. I want the world to know what they’re losing.

Atheists don’t get the same comforts that believers do, but on the bright side we don’t get the same platitudes either. It’s difficult, trying to find a space that feels intellectually genuine but isn’t emotionally devastating. I have two concepts of afterlife that I feel some degree of satisfaction with.

The first is the acknowledgment that this “essential self,” unbound from the ego self, may be as easily described as “life.” That really, at a root level, we are all an expression of life—life in the singular: a unified, essential vibration of the universe. As long as life continues, that essential core of me continues—but by that same token, this version of “self” is not separate from the rest of the world. I am my grandfather and my father and my mother, my friends and enemies, the tree and the bird and the ocean and air, the sky and stars. When I am willing to let go of my self, “I” can transcend; “I” can become all things.

It’s in this scenario that the concept of reincarnation takes on a more powerful message for me. If we are all expressions of this singular but infinite life, then “karma” isn’t about how we alter the destiny of our future incarnations: It’s about the sort of world we build and the ways that world impacts all living creatures. To help the poor creates a world where people help the poor; to conserve rainforests leaves a world that has rainforests; to do good adds goodness to the world: one’s existence, beyond the trappings of the ego self, is altered in the present and for all future generations.[5] The ripples go on and on, for good and ill; our essential core, in this interpretation, is recipient of all the joy and suffering we create.

And the other scenario is a wild scientific concept. The big bang is as of yet understood only in the loosest ways, but it’s thought it burst forth from an infinitely small point of space existing in a complete state of entropy. As our universe moves forward, the entropy of matter increase until it reaches a similar state of “completion.” At this time, it’s difficult to know how space as we conceive of it is even possible, so perhaps space would collapse in on itself to an infinitely small point. And maybe, just maybe, the universe will begin again and follow the same pattern. Each life would occur again and again, throughout an endless cycle, an infinite number of repetitions. [6] Maybe the consequence of each of our sins is that we must commit them again and again—and the great reward for all our triumphs is found in achieving them ad infinitum as the universe circles into eternity.

Read further thoughts on this topic and on my grandfather here.

Footnotes:

1. Check out the documentary National Geographic: The Moment of Death for details on this.
2. John 11-12; note specifically the beginning of John 12, where (dependent on translation and how one reads the pronoun) you can assume we move from Lazarus being raised to Lazarus being made supper. The time negation isn’t noted, but the lack of details from Lazarus—who has been dead four days—seems conspicuous.
3. Just—read this book. When someone demands that I pick a “favorite favorite” book, American Gods is the one I go to by default.
4. n.b. the unintended double meaning.
5.”Be the change you want to see in the world.” Often accredited to Ghandi, this is actually just one of many paraphrases of an older saying that feels a little bit like a platitude when you assume it’s being spoken in the air of a motivational lecture. When it becomes a statement on Karma as a matter of fact rather than principle—or the undeniable, “Your choices impact the world, so don’t be unconscious about it”—it become an existentially responsible, Buddhistic imperative.
6. The ending of KPAX actually does a fine job of summing up this theory.
7. This entire thing is about Robert Wallace Blair. I want you to know who you’re going to be missing. And I will tell, much more, soon.