The Gentler Symptoms of Dying

 

[pullquote] From jokes, to songs, to demonstrations of gratitude, and smiles, dying people may, for biological reasons unknown, be given a final moment by the body’s complex systems to be alert with their loved ones and take a last look around with clarity. [/pullquote]

Sara Manning Peskin, M.D., writes a vividly descriptive piece for the New York Times on a level of consciousness experienced near death coined by biologist Michael Nahm as “terminal lucidity”. While active dying can be confirmed in individuals by observing bodily symptoms such as “the death rattle”, “terminal agitation”, or “air hunger”, Peskin expands in detail on this subtler sign of dying.

The interconnectedness of the human body’s organs is referred to by Peskin as a “compassionate gift” because, as death nears and each organ system shuts down, they communicate to the brain to fall into a numbing slumber. Peskin states: “We may be able to sense people at the bedside on a spiritual level, but we are not fully awake in the moments, and often hours, before we die.”

Terminal lucidity is described as a burst of cognitive clarity and energy unusual compared to a dying person’s usual static state. Peskin details the biological functions and shut downs that cause bodily death which may happen in different sequences depending on the ailment. However, the mystery behind terminal lucidity is that it often occurs irrespective of the patient’s condition. A person dying with dementia, brain tumors, stroke, or kidney failure, for example, may all experience this sudden energy and awareness. “Nearly 90 percent of cases happened within a week of death and almost half occurred on the final day of life.” Peskin writes. From jokes, to songs, to demonstrations of gratitude, and smiles, dying people may, for biological reasons unknown, be given a final moment by the body’s complex systems to be alert with their loved ones and take a last look around with clarity. As Alexander Batthyány, an expert on dying, said: terminal lucidity is “the light before the end of the tunnel.”

This is an interesting article about lucidity before death. Of course, every death is different. My husband had a very conscious journey, using VSED (Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking) as the means to cause his death. Each day of his 9 ½ day journey took him closer to taking his last breath. Each day, his way of communicating to me shifted a little. On the eighth day, he could no longer talk and his eyes were closed, but he could answer “yes” or “no” by moving his eyelids. This is I was able to know if he was physically comfortable. On the ninth day, he was in a coma with loud rapid breathing. Our doctor said he was brain dead and would die in one to three days. His heart was still strong. She left our house. I went into his room and spontaneously began to talk with him. We were communicating even though he was brain dead. I told him he was getting his wish and would not have to live into the late stages of Alzheimer’s. I told him how brave he was and that I was going to be alright. Then he took his last breath. He went from the loud rapid breathing to taking one or two loooong, quiet, gentle breaths. He left.

All of this is explained in more detail in my recently published book, Choosing to Die. I hope you take the time to read this first memoir and guidebook written about VSED as a form of elective death in the face of degenerative disease.