Wednesday, 23 May 2012

What is death?

As regular readers will know, a good friend of mine recently passed away. Losing someone who I grew up with has been a massive shock to me and I have struggled to deal with some aspects of the experience. It strikes me that if I've had major issues, maybe other people have as well. Maybe writing about some of the things which have gone through my mind, will in some way help to deal with it.

Perhaps the strangest and most troubling thought is "what is death"? When do we actually die? From a clinical perspective, it seems to me that this is not as clear cut as we think. When Fabrice Muamba had heart attack playing for Bolton Vs Spurs, we were told he was "dead for 90 minutes". Wikipedia has a helpful definition of clinical death - -

Clinical death is the medical term for cessation of blood circulation and breathing, the two necessary criteria to sustain life.[1] It occurs when the heart stops beating in a regular rhythm, a condition called cardiac arrest.

But it isn't that simple, is it. Organs can be taken from the body after death and transplanted, and work perfectly well. A body can be kept alive, almost indefinitely when all brain activity has ceased.  Which makes me wonder, how long after clinical death is the person conscious of what is happening around them? Near Death Experiences are well documented. These certainly seem to indicate a residual level of awareness. In my friends case, the cessation of breathing was taken as death. What troubles me is that we don't know what goes on in the brain. A certain peacefulness, following the battle against pain and cancer appeared to take over my friend. Given the terrible pain and suffering he'd been experiencing, I  must assume that he had a degree of relief that this had finished. Given his circumstances, there were no monitors checking for brain activity and given the levels of pain relief, we had no last message or goodbyes. Another good friend of mine died eleven years ago of Pancreatic cancer. He was lucid up until the final moments, giving a running commentary of the experiences and emotions he was feeling. He even sought to give me advice on the running of the studios and what I needed to do.

My sister is a hospice nurse and she has witnessed the death of hundreds of people. She told me that in her opinion spiritual people have spiritual deaths and non spiritual people don't. She is of the opinion that we tend to get the experience that we expect to get. I am not sure whether that is reassuring or not.

I was contacted by a well meaning reader of the blog, who assured me that I shouldn't worry about my friend, as they will be reincarnated and have the opportunity to correct all of their mistakes. I must say that of all the possible options, reincarnation is the one which I hope doesn't happen. If the atheists are correct and there is nothing, then there really is nothing to worry about is there? If my lot, The Roman Catholics are correct, I'll get judged. I like to think I'm one of the good guys, but I could be in for a very nasty surprise. Although my teachers back in the 1960's and 70's used to try and scare the living daylights out of us all, with stories of fire and brimstone, I can't really say I've ever seriously considered Hell as an option. Now if one of the other brands of Judeo-Christain-Islamic faiths is the right brand, I feel I may still be in with a decent shout. But then consider reincarnation. I love my life as an adult, I have a scream of a time. I  would not want to go through childhood and puberty again. It was a horrible time and I was deeply unhappy for most of it. Don't get me wrong, I love my family and my homelife, but outside of that so many things were rotten. School, until I was 15 was a daily battle just to survive with my sanity.

We had teachers who were merciless bullies and at times bordered on being evil sadists. Of course most  weren't, but the ones that were took great joy in humiliating and inflicting pain on children. To be honest, I became pretty immune to it. After the hundredth time I'd been called to the front of the class to be ritually humiliated, it stopped bothering me. I decided that if I was going to get clobbered, I may as well make it worthwhile, so I'd try my hardest to rile the teacher before they got a chance to hit me. They would then inform me they were really going to make it painful. As an adult I simply wouldn't tolerate that sort of treatment, the thought of being a child again and suffering it again is perhaps my darkest fear.

Then there was the uncertainty of puberty, with raging hormones and an ingrained morality that caused me to feel guilty about my feelings. I can remember being about 13 years old and being an alter server. There was an extremely cute girl in the congregation. As mass went on, all I could think about was her and what I'd like to do with her. I was so engrossed in my fantasy that I forgot to ring the bell at communion. I felt like I was doomed to hell for my sins as I realised the horrifying enormity of what I'd done. After mass, I felt like all of the congregation hated me. I felt that they knew exactly why I'd fluffed the bellringing and hated me for it. Would I want to feel like that again? No chance whatsoever.

There were many other things which I didn't enjoy. Becoming an adult meant no more shit from anyone. No one telling me I was a moron, no one berating me for coming bottom of the class. It meant shedding all of the self doubt and irrational fears which had been drummed into me.

Coming back to the question, What is death. I'm really none the wiser. It is something which I'm not afraid of, but am very apprehensive about. As to what comes after, I guess we have to believe what suits us.  I don't have any answers, I don't think I've even found all of the questions yet.

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