The Indifference of Dying
One evening in 1987, my mother went to bed. She didn’t get up again for a year.
Convinced she was dying, I became desperate to know if there was any truth to the existence of the afterlife. I also needed to know what it felt like to die.
This took more courage than I thought I possessed. Like most people, I didn’t want to think about death. Heck, I couldn’t even look at the page in the newspaper where names of people who had died were listed!
Ah, but once I took my first step on this journey, I discovered that dying appeared to be nowhere near as confronting as I had feared. Comments by near-death experiencers in Moody’s Life After Life included:
“There was no pain, and I’ve never felt so relaxed.”
“… a momentary flash of pain, but then the pain vanished.”
“I couldn’t feel a thing in the world except peace, comfort, ease – just quietness.”
“… the most extreme comfort I have ever experienced.”
Comforted by these, I bravely moved on to other books on the subject and found eerily similar statements.
As a young naval cadet in the early nineteenth century, Francis Beaufort almost drowned. Here is how he described his experience in his autobiography:
“… a calm feeling of the most perfect tranquillity superseded the most tumultuous sensations … I no longer thought of being rescued, nor was I in any bodily pain. On the contrary, my sensations were now of a rather pleasurable cast, partaking of that dull but contented sort of feeling which precedes the sleep produced by fatigue.”
It has been said that drowning is not an unpleasant experience, but what about other causes of death?
Well, did you know that Dr. David Livingstone (of the “I presume” fame) was almost devoured by a lion?
Seriously, that could hardly have been pleasant.
In Adventures and Discoveries in the Interior of Africa (Hubbard Bros, 1872) Livingstone wrote: “…… he caught my shoulder as he sprang and we both came to the ground below together. Growling horribly close to my ear, he shook me as a terrier does a rat.”
Can you imagine anything more terrifying, or more painful, than being eaten alive by a lion? Then you may be surprised by Livingstone’s next words: “It caused a sort of dreaminess in which there was no sense of pain, nor feeling of terror, though [I was] quite conscious of all that was happening.
Livingstone added that “this shake annihilated fear and allowed no sense of horror in looking round at the beast.” His only emotion was that of intense curiosity as to which part of his body the lion would have next.
Livingstone concluded: “the peculiar state is probably produced in all animals killed by carnivore; and if so, is a merciful provision by our benevolent Creator for lessening the pain of death.”
Another not-so-fun way to die would be falling from a great height! Nineteenth-century Swiss geologist and mountaineer, Albert Heim, survived such a fall, and reported that “everything was beautiful without grief or anxiety, and without pain.” He added that “elevated and harmonious thoughts dominated and united the individual images, and like magnificent music, a divine calm swept through my soul.”
As a result of his experience, Heim conducted what was perhaps the first in-depth research into near death experiences. He published his results in the year book of the Swiss Alpine Club in 1892 as ‘The Experience of Dying From Falls’ and described his own encounter, along with thirty other first-hand accounts of near-fatal falls by mountain-climbers and workers who fell of scaffolding.
Heim learnt that “no grief was felt, nor any paralysing fright. There was no anxiety, no trace of despair, nor pain, but rather calm seriousness, profound acceptance and a dominant mental quickness.”
His research also revealed that “consciousness was painlessly extinguished, usually at the moment of impact, which was at the most heard but never painfully felt.”
I sincerely doubted my mother was going to fall off a mountain, drown at sea or be attacked by a man-eating lion, so – and with considerable trepidation – I moved on to reading about people who were dying permanently.
This was a major leap for me, but in the process I discovered the dying had even more to tell us than the almost-died.
Karlis Osis, Ph.D researched extensively in this area in the late 1950’s. His findings were published as Deathbed Observations by Physicians and Nurses in 1961 – an academic masterpiece designed to bring tears of joy to any scientist!
Osis discovered that fear was “not the dominant emotion in dying patients.” Indifference, he noted, had been indicated far more frequently.
One doctor commented that “there is such a resigned, peaceful, almost happy expression which comes over the patient, it is hard to explain but it leaves me with the feeling that I would not be afraid to die.”
Many even experienced elation or exaltation shortly before their death. “Their moods were so heightened,” Osis observed, “that the patient preferred to die into this kind of experience rather than to continue living without it.”
In his classic book, The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale related the story of his friend, Mr. Clarke, a construction engineer who died briefly during a serious illness. Peale described Clarke as a “quiet, restrained, factual, unemotional type of man with a scientific turn of mind.”
“I must be dying! Clarke recalled thinking when he found himself outside his body.
Then it occurred to him that perhaps he had already died! “… I almost laughed out loud,” he later told Peale, “and I asked myself: why have I been afraid of death all my life? There is nothing to be afraid of in this!”
My mother and I survived our ‘year from hell’. It was a year that taught me about the pain of watching a loved one suffer. I also discovered something else that year: nothing is as fearful as it might initially seem to be, especially when it is viewed in the light of knowledge.
I thank you, Mum, for giving me that precious gift.