In the first instalment of this series on death, I described a heart event that made me suspect I was having a heart attack. Instead, it was a strong arrhythmic event that reduced the flow of blood to the head leading to near unconsciousness. However, it could have been a cardiac arrest, and the symptomatic result would’ve been similar: unconsciousness and death. During the ordeal, I believed perhaps the latter, and therefore, my death was likely.
What blindsided me, was how calm and rational I was during the decline. I didn’t expect that reaction to a sudden life-threatening emergency. Reflecting on what had happened as I recovered, I found my acceptance of death, when it seemed inevitable, was also comforting. Intellectually, I believed that I was okay with death, but it’s often different when facing the gauntlet.
As Mike Tyson (correctly) said: “Everyone’s got a plan until they’re punched in the face.”
Beliefs and reality often clash.
In a life-threatening event, the body’s survival instinct takes over in a desperate attempt for survival. This can be simply demonstrated by the lightning fast, pre-conscious neurological reflex to evade perceived danger. In your peripheral vision, you see a shape resembling a snake, spider or predator and without thinking, you flinch, pull away, scream or run.
The innate survival instinct is a neurological and automatic function that most people have no control over. It takes considerable repetitive, exposure training to habituate the brain to no longer react autonomously to perceived threats. Combat and emergency personnel have to undergo exposure training to function rationally when everyone else is in shock. Constant exposure to an unfamiliar or threatening stimulus cultivates familiarity. Familiarity with an event means one is no longer threatened to the same degree, and therefore, able to discern the “threat” and act accordingly. The underlying fear for survival is always felt, but it doesn’t take over our bodies and minds as it did before the repetitive exposure. Fear of harm or danger is essential to understand and differentiate from the terror of death.
The concept of familiarity through repetitive exposure is important because it sheds light on why people in developed countries have a hard time with death–we’re shielded from it at every stage. Most people may see a corpse at a funeral after the body’s cleaned, prepped and clothed. At the pre-funeral viewing, we know the deceased is not alive, but they don’t look like a week-old corpse either. We are further told they are “sleeping peacefully.” But how many of us have seen a corpse, much less the decaying process?
For example, I’ve met many people who don’t want to be buried or cremated when dead because of how they picture each experience while alive. They imagine their prepped, sleeping body will feel the claustrophobic isolation of burial or the pulverizing dissolution of cremation; and as a natural extension, the sensory experience of being dead.
They will shiver at the possibility of desolation and nothingness after death, or worse, dread the potential meeting with judgemental ghostly entities. They reveal an admission of believing their sense organs can experience death when they’re dead.
The belief is also a denial that their life–their persona–will end and no longer exist.
However, when I refer to death in this series, I mean post-death: what may or may not happen to me–my mind, soul or existence–after my body dies and decays.
I also need to clarify that being unafraid of death doesn’t equal apathy for life or longing for death.
Being unafraid of death also isn’t the same as being afraid of the dying process.
While we have any attachment to life, we’ll want to avoid dying. Not only consciously but it’s also innate and intrinsic to our biology as explained earlier. Our intrinsic survival instinct will continuously avoid any pain or suffering, especially that leading to death. One never feels ready for death, unless there’s so much biological or psychoemotional suffering that the escape towards death is the only respite.
Post-death itself is the least of my concerns. My peace of mind as I lay my cold, clammy face on my knees that Tuesday was hard proof to me. While that’s very nice, you’ll want to know how or why.
I’ve been expecting and preparing for death for 13 years.
Motor Neurone Disease (ALS) is a terminal disease with an average life expectancy of 2 – 5 years. Anything past the second year mark and it’s like sitting under the sword of Damocles. One respiratory infection and it’s a countdown to pneumonia and death as the paralysed respiratory muscles fail to expel mucus effectively. Living with the daily potential for death in mind not only prepares but also numbs one somewhat to the inevitability. I became familiar with the idea I would die soon. Something quite different from my outlook before ALS.
The longevity of a fatal condition shouldn’t be under-appreciated in its ability to prepare someone for death. Like the repetitive exposure training for combat and emergency personnel, a terminal disease exposes you to death through the deteriorative daily suffering. Often, by the time one gets to the end, one is not only desensitised but mostly looking forward to the end of a lesser life of suffering.
I don’t mean to imply that one wouldn’t rather live and be free of suffering, postponing death for another time. We would. We’re emotional beings with loves, passions, dreams and memories we’re emotionally attached to; and death means the complete sensory disappearance of everything we care about.
What I mean by desensitisation is that the inevitability diminishes in shock-value over time. All things considered, if a future life of inescapable, consistent and increasing suffering is the best one can look forward to, then death can’t be much worse. A small percentage of people have the misfortune of suffering through excruciating diseases that won’t abate despite the best pain-killers. Often, a dose strong enough to end the pain skirts the edge of death. By that time, the effect is so strong the sufferer is impervious to what’s going on. Death, life and coherence become a distant fog. Therefore, death becomes a non-issue. Death stops being a condition to be feared but a process met with indifference.
Unless we dread what we imagine may be awaiting us on the other side.
2. My view on what may happen after death.
I hope it goes without saying that I don’t know—no one does.
All anyone can have is faith in a spiritual teaching, or a probability based on known phenomena coupled with introspection. I’ve been exposed to various religious teachings and their multiple concepts of an afterlife. I’ve also studied the scientific and philosophical reasoning on death. Both camps seem opposed, yet, both have glaring faults in their logic that continues to be dismissed or glossed over. I’ll be addressing these faults in subsequent posts, and hopefully, by the end present you with a probability that’s difficult to argue against based on what we can observe and deduce.
As I worked through different outcomes, I’d focus on testing their conclusions with basic common-sense questions that even a child would ask. To my surprise, most theories fall apart if one makes an honest effort to examine their premises. At this existential juncture of my life, potential truth took precedence over wish-fulfilment. Letting go of common wishes was only as difficult as letting go of a habit.
Most unprovable beliefs are habits learned from someone I thought was an authority on the subject. Looking back, I initially doubted these ideas, even as a child. But through repetitive exposure, authoritative trust and group-think/peer expectation, I (like those around me) begin to be conditioned to the belief as truth (You can think of Santa Claus as another belief habit that follows the same process). Yet, most of the time, we’ve never really sat down and picked our beliefs apart until it’s too late. Then we’re grasping at straws, faced with our own shaky foundation and irrefutable doubt when we need it most.
3. Focus on symptoms during the crisis.
I’ve been in a number of near-miss events where death was an inevitable possibility. At those times, however, what preoccupied me was the injury, symptoms or suffering. But the full weight of potential death wasn’t a consideration until after the event. We don’t fully accept death because we naturally assume we’re going to survive.
Generally, pain, panic or adrenalin overload our focus with the intention to stop or reduce the harm. If death occurs, we wouldn’t even know it (unconsciousness usually occurs first). Consider times when you were extremely ill, in an accident or a life-threatening situation. You may remember at the time, even if death was a possibility, your focus was centred on what was happening at the moment, and/or how to escape it. Even if death popped into your mind, you didn’t really believe it.
In the context of a disease, our focus is on managing symptoms and alleviating discomfort, something modern medicine achieves exceptionally well. Since most people’s fear in dying is horrific pain and suffering, I can assure you that’s nothing to be concerned about under medical supervision. In 98% – 99% of cases, medical care possesses medication that will considerably dampen or completely eliminate any psychological or physical pain. Of course, the more potent the intervention, the less one is lucid.
I would welcome any medical personnel to confirm this in the comments section for the reader’s benefit.
These three factors are outlined to dispel any allusion to special uniqueness of my experience. They’re common and likely to happen to you as well. Hopefully, the three factors serve to allay some of the fear expected in the dying process, particularly the third factor. You can rest assured that statistically speaking, you’re very unlikely to know exactly when you’re about to die while you’re dying. You’ll be preoccupied with the symptoms, physical or psychological experience, and extremely likely to unknowingly lose consciousness before your body shuts down.
If you’re lucky enough potentially die from a terminal illness, you’ll also have time to habituate to the reality you’re about to face. I would never guess before ALS that a terminal illness was the best way to pass. Now, I have no doubt. The main benefit is for your loved ones, as they too prepare for your passing. There’s time.
Appreciating the benefits of a longer death also doesn’t mean that we enjoy the suffering from the terminal disease. I hate ALS and what it’s robbed me of living. But from a logistical and familial perspective, I know those I care about will better prepared for the day I pass.
In sudden death, the trauma of your passing is exponential. No one’s prepared. There’s regret, guilt, shame, anger, disbelief and incompleteness. There’s nothing but pain without any avenue for the solace of interpersonal redemption. With a terminal illness, you have time to get your affairs in order. To connect, to forgive, to love, to memorialise, to do that which is most important for your tribe.
A sudden death and a longer death end the same way for you: unconsciousness and death. But the impacts on those you love is worlds apart. Knowing what I know now, I prefer a terminal illness without exception.
There’s time to adjust and complete any relational issues. A sudden death robs everyone of that.
There’s medical intervention to ease suffering. A quick but solitary and painful death doesn’t allow an opportunity for comfort.
There’s always the possibility of healing or treatment to prolong your life. A sudden death bypasses any potential recovery.
Finally, a longer death affords your loved ones a glimpse into the dying process. They’ll watch, learn and remember how you handled death, which will serve them when their time inescapably arrives.
Remember, no one gets out alive.
Yes, a quick death reduces suffering and is preferable in accidents or violent acts. But when it comes to disease, I hope I’ve convinced you that a longer death isn’t a curse (it’s a second chance); you always have the option of opting out sooner. If you happen to survive the terminal illness, your perspective and priorities will change. You know you haven’t escaped death, you’ve just delayed the inevitable. But when you meet the shadow of death again (hopefully later than sooner), you’ll have some gratitude for the illness that allowed you to savour your personal life a little longer.
In the next instalment, I’ll explore the nature of life. Life had to be understood correctly before I could hope to make sense of death.