The come-hither title “What It Feels Like to Die” admittedly drew my eyes to the top paragraph of this Atlantic article.
Why? I had watched my father slowly die over a period of weeks this past June and it was quite eye-opening (and depressing) watching him slowly shut down. When he even lost interest in his beloved cats, I knew the end was near.
As the article relates, dying people are in another world weeks before the final moments and they’re not talking about it much with us. Many sense a summons to pack it up here for the big move to the Beyond.
As I read through the piece, however, I noticed a big gap. Yes, as you would imagine, this has something to do with faith, God and Ultimate Questions.
“Do you want to know what will happen as your body starts shutting down?”
My mother and I sat across from the hospice nurse in my parents’ Colorado home. It was 2005, and my mother had reached the end of treatments for metastatic breast cancer. A month or two earlier, she’d been able to take the dog for daily walks in the mountains and travel to Australia with my father. Now, she was weak, exhausted from the disease and chemotherapy and pain medication.
My mother had been the one to decide, with her doctor’s blessing, to stop pursuing the dwindling chemo options, and she had been the one to ask her doctor to call hospice. Still, we weren’t prepared for the nurse’s question. My mother and I exchanged glances, a little shocked. But what we felt most was a sense of relief.
During six-and-a-half years of treatment, although my mother saw two general practitioners, six oncologists, a cardiologist, several radiation technicians, nurses at two chemotherapy facilities, and surgeons at three different clinics—not once, to my knowledge, had anyone talked to her about what would happen as she died.
There’s good reason. “Roughly from the last two weeks until the last breath, somewhere in that interval, people become too sick, or too drowsy, or too unconscious, to tell us what they’re experiencing,” says Margaret Campbell, a professor of nursing at Wayne State University who has worked in palliative care for decades.
That’s definitely true. We knew my dad was in a world of his own that we could not enter. The article goes on to say that people within days of death are quasi-comatose and barely aware of what’s going on. The writer interviews David Hovda, director of the UCLA Brain Injury Research Center about what goes on in the brain.
“As the brain begins to change and start to die, different parts become excited, and one of the parts that becomes excited is the visual system,” Hovda explains. “And so that’s where people begin to see light.”
Recent research points to evidence that the sharpening of the senses some people report also seems to match what we know about the brain’s response to dying. Jimo Borjigin, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, first became intrigued by this subject when she noticed something strange in the brains of animals in another experiment: Just before the animals died, neurochemicals in the brain suddenly surged. While scientists had known that brain neurons continued to fire after a person died, this was different. The neurons were secreting new chemicals, and in large amounts.
“A lot of cardiac-arrest survivors describe that during their unconscious period, they have this amazing experience in their brain,” she says. “They see lights and then they describe the experience as ‘realer than real.’” She realized the sudden release of neurochemicals might help to explain this feeling.
If you pick up any book about near death experiences, lots of people experience a light, usually after they die and before they come back. The light people experience is something they often connect to God.
Yet, God is not mentioned in this story, nor in the accompanying video. I bet, however, that people who claim having an NDE don't think it was all a result of neurochemicals.
I was curious why this story did not probe the experiences of people who expected to meet God and whether their pre-death days differed from others. It’s not an unreasonable question. A New York Times piece from earlier this year talked about the dreams that dying people have and how the living should deal with them. Twice in the story a priest or chaplain is mentioned as someone needed to bring solace to a wounded soul who can’t find rest.
A similar story in the Deseret News also brings up matters of faith. So, it’s a bit odd that the Atlantic skipped the topic entirely. In fact, the Atlantic itself, in a 2015 piece about near-death experiences written by an admitted skeptic, at least mentioned religious viewpoints. The anecdote about the rats was also alluded to in that 2015 piece.
Both Atlantic pieces give far more quotes to the voices of science over that of belief in a supernatural reason behind near death experiences and, in this latest piece, dreams of meeting people who have gone on before. Could, just could it be a window into another realm?
My mother and I were talking recently about how the popular view of death is reflected in Meryl Streep’s peaceful death scene at the end of the (just-released) movie Florence Foster Jenkins. But that was not typical of the way many people die. One of my mom's friends had died while struggling for breath. When my mother was summoned to my dad’s bedside in the early hours of June 24, it was because the aides noticed he had started breathing laboriously. This went on for a few hours until an Episcopal priest walked into the room intending to give Holy Communion.
One glance at my dad told the priest that Last Rites would be more appropriate. It was only when he said the Lord’s Prayer that my dad visibly relaxed. A few minutes later, he stopped breathing.
Since faith shapes life, why can’t it shape death? I know it does for many, many people. Why is it such an imposition to mention this in a magazine article?
Alas, the only spiritual content in this Atlantic piece is the photo of the angel statue at the top of the magazine page.