For many, the greatest mystery of life is what happens after death – what awaits us when we take our last breath? Others, however, are more concerned with the more direct practicalities.
How does the dying process feel? Is there any consciousness that remains in the moments between this world and what comes after? Is it like the experience of falling asleep, a slow drift into nothingness, or are we aware that we are sliding off this mortal spiral?
“Death is a unique experience for the individual and their loved ones,” explains Dr Patrick Steele, a palliative care specialist at Victoria’s Palliative Care South East.
“There is much more than the physiological changes that contribute to the dying experience.
For example, a person’s personality, burden of disease, the support of family and friends, the duration of a terminal illness and their spirituality.”
However, there are certain physiological changes that take place across the board.
“Regular breathing patterns can change,” he continues, “sometimes it can be faster than normal, and other times slower. In the last days, there may be periods where there are long pauses in breathing. Breathing can become noisy towards the end of life. This is an accumulation of wastes/secretions from the body, it is often more painful for those who listen than for the person who is dying.”
A study published earlier this year in Frontiers in aging neuroscience found that the brain may remain active during and perhaps even after the moment of death.
Doctors performed continuous electroencephalography (EEG) on a patient who had developed epilepsy, when the patient had a heart attack and died in the process.
It allowed them to map the activity of a human brain during death, and they discovered activity rhythms similar to reminiscing, dreams, meditation and conscious perception.
This, hypothesized the study’s organizer, Dr. Ajmal Zemmar, a neurosurgeon at the University of Louisville, could mean that the idea that our lives “flash before our eyes” when we die has merit.
“As a neurosurgeon, I sometimes deal with loss. It is indescribably difficult to deliver the news of death to distraught relatives,” he told the Frontier News blog.
“Something we can learn from this research is that although our loved ones have their eyes closed and are ready to let us rest, their brains can replay some of the most beautiful moments they have experienced in their lives.”