For a while, now, I have been looking for someone to tell me what dying feels like. Tricky topic, I know, all the best witnesses being dead. Silly thing to do, friends have told me, don’t waste your time.
Dr Geoffrey Garret, onetime senior Home Office pathologist, tells us what dying looks like:
Life has a genuine presence that you can only really feel as it moves from a body. That is the sole time it shows itself, through its sudden absence. Though you cannot touch it, see it or hear it … life is nonetheless something one can feel, like electricity.
It is also true to say that one does not have to be physically close to sense the microsecond when it moves on.
You’d think that hospice nurses and care home staff would have some idea what dying feels like, having watched over so many departures. You’d think that one or two might have done it themselves, vicariously.
I was about to start researching this when along comes a pretty good answer in the shape of a new book by Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick, The Art of Dying. Dr Fenwick is a neurophysiologist, not a new age nutter. Difficult to roll the eyes and dismiss him out of hand.
The Fenwicks talk about ELEs – end of life experiences – when dying people become aware of the presence of friendly dead people who have come to receive them and guide them on their way. At the moment of death, a dying person will often gaze fixedly and with great joy.
They conclude that “a mechanistic view of brain function is inadequate to explain these transcendent experiences.” They refute any claim that these are drug induced experiences in dying people on the grounds that drugs give rise to altogether more psychedelic hallucinations.
The Fenwicks talk about the experiences of people miles away from a dying person who become aware of their death at the precise time it happens.
They talk about how some of the living have a continuing sense of the presence of a dead person.
They’re especially interesting about NDEs – near death experiences – especially those they term TDEs – temporary death experiences. Some survivors of cardiac arrest, brought back by CPR, experience the classic near death experience even though they are technically dead. The Fenwicks conclude: “From the point of view of science, TDEs cannot occur during unconsciousness, and yet there is some tantalising evidence that this is just when they do seem to occur.”
They conclude that consciousness may not be limited to the brain, and that, given the lovely time people have dying, “a greater understanding of what happens when we die would lead to a removal of our fear of death and open up the possibility of a new beginning, the start of a new journey.”
It’s all very intriguing and, as the Fenwicks say, worth researching further. They don’t claim to have the answer, but they are sceptical of the capability of reductionist medical science to crack the mystery.
It’s a book well worth reading. Rush out and buy it. And I’m looking forward to another, when it comes off the presses in a few days’ time. It is Gentle Dying by Felicity Warner, who heads up the UK’s only online hospice. It’s all about engaging with dying and making it a positive process, not “A losing fight with frightful pain / Or a gasping fight for breath” (Betjeman).
My neighbour’s house was repossessed yesterday. All her things are still in it. We don’t know where she is now. I rang the estate agent who, it turns out, traffics in this sort of misery daily, and, no, she doesn’t think about the feelings of the people this has happened to. If continuation of consciousness means more of the same shittiness of human nature, I’m very happy to buy into the idea of dying contentably. After that, though, please: lights out.