Thoughts about dying

One of the joys of our semi-retirement is that I have been reading books for the pure pleasure of reading. I’ve always been an avid reader, but for much of my adult life I have focused my reading on books that had some relationship to my work. I’ve read lots of books that have informed my work, helped me develop as a teacher, taught me about developments in philosophy and theology, pastoral care, and administration. I feel no need at this phase of my career to be as focused in my reading. I find myself simply walking through the shelves in the library and choosing books that interest me without need of connecting the books to my work or even to other books that I have read. It reminds me of my childhood, when I had a brand new library card and would go to the library and choose books by their covers. I’d pick up a book, read the author’s profile and the synopsis on the slip jacket and check it out. If I ended up with a book that wasn’t very interesting, I’d simply return it and check out another. I’m doing a bit of that type of reading.

I picked up a novel by Jess Walter on my last trip to the library. Some people consider Jess to be a local author, though he is from Spokane, at the other end of our state. I first encountered Jess by listening to a podcast he shares with Sherman Alexie. His sense of humor strikes me as familiar, and his poetic use of language intrigues me. This book, “The Cold Millions” is a novel set in the American northwest during the early years of the 20th century. Walter does a great job of character development and introduces several generations of characters in the early pages of the novel.

One of the techniques he has employed several times in the few pages that I have read is to tell the story of the very end of a person’s life. One person dies when a ferry is swept over a waterfall after having been cut loose from its moorings. One person dies from a gunshot. Another dies as the result of a beating the left him with broken ribs and pneumonia. In both cases, Walter speculates on the thoughts that might go through a person’s mind at the point of dying.

Of course none of us knows for sure what the experience of dying is like. As they say, “None have lived to tell the tale.” There is a whole genre of books about near death experiences. I’ve read several accounts written by our about people who have experienced heart failure and been revived. There are some common experiences and similarities in the stories of people who have gone through similar experiences. However, I’m unconvinced that going through a near-death experience is the same thing as actually dying. I suspect that what we have is data about what it feels to have your heart stop and be re-started. Furthermore, there are many, many people who have experienced similar circumstances without having had the experiences described by those who have written books about their experiences. My wife experienced two cardiac arrests in one day. She has no memory of the experience at all. Her experience may be far more common than that of people who see bright lights and have out of body experiences.

A study, published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience this week caught my eye. A team of scientists were measuring the brain waves of an 87-year-old patient who had developed epilepsy. However, while they were recording his brain waves, the patient suffered a fatal heart attack. The recording of brain waves continued during the entire episode, providing a recording of a dying brain. Of note were the 30 seconds before and 30 seconds after the cardiac arrest, the man’s brainwaves followed the same patterns as dreaming or recalling memories.

By total chance, in a study of one person, scientists observed a phenomenon that was something like a flashback. For years, people have speculated that as a person dies their life story might play through their memory. Something like that may have happened for the man in the study. 30 seconds before the patient’s heart stopped supplying blood to the brain his brainwaves followed the same patterns as when a person is carrying out high-cognitive demanding tasks, like concentrating, dreaming or recalling memories. It continued 30 seconds after the patient’s heart stopped beating - the point at which a patient is typically declared dead. Dr. Zemmar, a neurosurgeon, commented, “This could possibly be a last recall of memories that we’ve experienced in life, and they replay through our brain in the last seconds before we die.”

Of course broad conclusions can’t be drawn from a study of one. And opportunities to observe human brain waves at the point of death won’t come often enough to have a large scale study. There is a 2013 study in which researchers reported high levels of brainwaves in laboratory rats at the point of death that continued 30 seconds after the rats’ hearts stopped beating.

Whether it be the speculations of a creative writer or the accidental results of a scientific study, there is a deep sense of mystery about the process of dying. I’ve been with enough people as they have died to be absolutely convinced that dying is a spiritual experience. Each opportunity to share such a moment has been unique and I have no direct knowledge of the experience of others, but the phrase “peace that passes all understanding,” comes to my mind as individuals make the transition from life to death. So far, I am very comfortable with not knowing exactly what the experience is. Each of us will one day die and when we do we will go through something that is singular and unlike any other experience. I believe we will draw close to God while remaining part of the wonder of creation. I’m comfortable with the uncertainty. I don’t need to know in advance. I read novels and reports of scientific studies with interest and I am entertained my what is not known as much as by what is known. Life is a mystery and how it ends is a mystery. Thinking about it inspires awe and that is enough for me.

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