For me, the best antidote for fear has always been knowledge. After I began experiencing anxiety on flights, I calmed my nerves by researching flight statistics. When I was scared for an upcoming surgery, I learned exactly what the surgeon would be doing. It's hard for me to be scared about something that I know all about... which is why I've sought to learn as much as I can about death. If you're like me, these shocking things you never knew about what happens just before you die may surprise you, but also shed a little light on this world's biggest unknown.
In the movies, death is typically portrayed peacefully; someone is awake one moment, and then peacefully drifts to sleep. The dying person may even say goodbye, mere moments before taking their last breath. While this is a nice way to view the final moments of a loved one's life, it's not totally realistic. There are typically stark changes in breathing and appearance as one nears death, and more often than not, they aren't holding conversations. And, of course, experiencing death is a whole lot different than simply witnessing it. As an article in National Geographic explained, "Your brain does not shut down as quickly as the rest of your body when you die; it’s still working." So what exactly are you experiencing, perceiving, and understanding in those final moments?
1. Breathing Gets Harder (And Noisier).
Right before you die, as your body systems begin slowing and shutting down, breathing naturally gets more and more difficult. Breathing also gets noisier, and "there may also be a rattling noise (often referred to as the 'death rattle') at the back of the throat," explained the website Dying Matters. "The person is no longer able to cough or swallow, which causes secretions such as saliva to pool in the back of the throat." While this may be unsettling and even scary for anyone witnessing a death, it's not uncomfortable for the dying person.
At the exact moment of death, you may appear to pant, or let out a long sigh followed by a quick gasp. This can be confusing and alarming for anyone witnessing it, "However, this is only the lungs expelling air," Dying Matters explains.
2. You Lose Your "Sense Of Self."
Dr. Cameron Shaw, a Victorian neurologist based in Geelong, dissected a woman's brain (accompanied by VICE) with the goal of figuring out exactly what went on within it in the moments before death. As Dr. Shaw explained, our brain begins to die "from the top down, claiming our most human characteristics first." In other words, we lose our personality, our memories, our ability to think; everything that makes us human is the first to go.
"For all intents and purposes you could say they're dead because they don't have a consciousness or an awareness of their surroundings," Dr. Shaw told VICE. "But if these basal structures are intact they'll still [breathe] and have a pulse."
3. You Become Unresponsive.
In the moments before you die, though you're still alive, you become unresponsive to the world around you. Your eyes might still be semi-open or open, but you aren't seeing anything going on. Interestingly enough, however, you may still be able to sense your loved ones around you.
"It is widely believed that hearing is the last sense to go," said VeryWellHealth, so go ahead and and talk to your dying loved one during their final moments.
4. You Experience Tunnel Vision, Similar To What You Experience Just Before Fainting.
If you've ever fainted before, you're familiar with those telltale signs that it's coming on. Things start to get cloudy or go black, and suddenly... BAM. You're down. This is pretty comparable to what you may experience right before you die.
"Basically [death is] a catastrophic loss of blood flow to the brain," Dr. Shaw told VICE. "We know that tunnel vision emerges when there's a disruption of blood supply to the brain. So the first thing you notice when you faint is a narrowing of the vision, followed by blackness." When you begin losing blood flow to the brain, the same sensation occurs.
5. You See Your Life Flash Before Your Eyes. (Yes, That's Actually True.)
Despite losing your "sense of self" and becoming unresponsive, you may actually experience your brain going into overdrive in the minutes and seconds before death. "New studies have found that your brain can enter a 'hyper state of perceptual neural activity' at the time of death," stated an article in National Geographic. "Essentially your brain is still projecting imagery." This imagery, according to people who have had near-death experiences, is often moments and memories of your life; suggesting that the popular phrase "my life flashed before my eyes" rings true.
6. Your Skin Becomes Cool And Discolored.
As you approach death, your circulation slows and the skin receives less oxygen. As you might imagine, this means your cheeks will lose their rosy glow. There are a variety of different changes, which often begin in your extremities and gradually spread to your entire body. The skin "may be cool to the touch and may turn blue or light gray," according to HowStuffWorks. "Some skin may exhibit signs of mottling, which is reddish-blue blotchiness."
Once you die, it's common for your body to relax before rigor mortis sets in two to eight hours later, according to Science ABC. If there are others around, they may notice your face appear to loosen. While witnessing someone's moment of death can be traumatic, there is an observable peacefulness once they've taken their final breath.
Just as no birth is identical, no death is identical either. However, barring a sudden accident or traumatic injury, these are the general things to expect in the moments before death. Though the living will never be able to understand death entirely, learning about at least take away some of those scary unknowns.
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