It may seem weird or gross or even abnormal to be interested in the physiology of death. However, I found it ultimately freeing. For me, understanding the process was fundamental to being able to be aware of the final stages of dad’s life, and ultimately be there to share in his very last moment.
I urge you to inform yourself. Understand that although everyone dies in a manner unique to themselves, those who go through an active dying process as a result of old age, or illness will demonstrate the same physiology. The timeframes may be different- i.e. for some it the different stages may take longer, for others it will all happen in a blink of an eye.
To understand how we die, is to understand that we inhabit a body and that we are not the body. It is also to understand that like in nature, there is a time to be born, and a time to die. If a flower starts from a seed, develops into a shoot, then a bud, opens, is magnificent and then gradually curls up, dies, and returns to the earth, is to understand that we must also do the same.
There are many ways to describe how we die. Although death seems so foreign to us, the process is not mysterious, and you can find many explanations depending on the perspective that is the most helpful to you.
A technical medical description of the process:
‘The stoppage of circulation, the inadequate transport of oxygen to tissue, the flickering out of brain function, the failure of organs, the destruction of vital centers- these are the weapons of every horseman of death’.
Sherwin B Nuland.
The Stages of death
My personal explanation of how we die:
Essentially the body begins to slowly shut down piece by piece, and provides us with little clues as to its progress towards final rest. We begin to loose physical strength and the ability to stand, walk, and support ourselves. We start to become a little disoriented, experience a decreased appetite and thirst and the resulting reduced production of urine. As our body tries to conserve energy we become like a baby again, and spend an ever-increasing amount of time sleeping. As our body starts shutting down, we lose control of our bowels and urine. With so many bodily changes occurring, we may become restless and anxious when awake. This is only natural as we are aware of what we used to be able to do, and what we are now faced with is both confusing and frustrating.
Once our bodies are ready to shut down we will be sleeping for most of the day. Our breathing patterns will change, and we will take shallow breaths, which will become further and further spaced apart. Our hands and arms, feet and legs will become cool to touch as the circulation of blood is naturally removed by the body from the outer lying areas of our body and is concentrated towards our vital organs. We may also start emitting a rasping sound from our chest, known as the death rattle.
Three final exhalation breaths signify death, and our mouth remains open from the final exhalation. Our heart stops pumping blood and from this point we are clinically deceased. What happens next, depends upon your spiritual and religious beliefs. Buddhists believe a process of inner dissolution occurs (‘Inner dissolution of the gross and subtle thought states and emotions’ Soygal Rinpoche) and that once this process is complete a person has finally ceased to exist. There is however, no correct answer.