What does it feel like to die?
But we’ll all find out some day.
Death. Just the word sends shivers down your spine. Yet without death, the world would die. The death of one means life for another. I’m not talking about reincarnation. The physical elements of a dead body will grow into plants, be consumed and converted into energy or muscle mass by animals, enable the flourishing life of insects and fungi. The circle of life continues, always. Death causes emotions, sadness, and grief, but it also creates an opportunity for togetherness, celebration of a life that one was lucky enough to live.
As an ecologist, I view the entire Earth as one giant living organism and everything on it is a small part of the whole large being. Just like your cells live and die individually, humans, plants, and animals, live, die, and contribute to the growth of our Mother Earth. Mountains grow and fall on a much longer time scale, and the oceans, rivers, and winds pump nutrients throughout the Earth’s body. Death, when occurring naturally after a long-lived life, is a beautiful part of the Earth’s flow.
A few weeks ago I watched my grandma die. At 89 years old, she took her last breath in the arms of her son, daughter, and grandson. The days leading up to her death were a whirlwind of dementia-driven confusion, childlike giddiness, and living in alternate realities. When she could no longer complete the most difficult New York Times crossword puzzles, we knew the end was near.
She reminded us over and over again that it was time to go home. Sometimes frantically, sometimes calmly. But what is this home she was referring to? After all, we were in her house. She spoke the address of her childhood home, but I believe that she was referring to the ultimate home. The home where she came from and the home where she would soon return to. The universe, everything and nothing at the same time.
The nurse called us in with two words, “it’s time.” We sat around my grandma’s bed, sending our positive and peaceful energy through her. I wrapped my fingers around her wrist to feel her pulse, but couldn’t find it. My mom placed a stethoscope on her chest, but heard only silence. Mucous gargled in her throat as she inhaled, slowly and weakly, and her breath was released for the very last time. Silence. Tranquil, unabridged silence. Finally, her body was at peace. No more heart problems, no more breathing problems, no more pain, simply pure peace.
The next minutes stretched to hours. Her energy, heat, consciousness, soul, spirit – however you choose to refer to it – seemed to dissipate, slowly, from her body and scatter back into the universe. I knew already, from textbooks and science classes, what happens to the physical body on the deathbed. But nobody knows what happens to the consciousness, the emotional body. In this moment, for the first and only time in my life, I felt an indescribable understanding of the process of death. I felt the full presence and connection with the Earth, the universe, the force of life, the symbiosis between all beings – a phenomenon which some refer to as God, but I choose to call Existence.
It was beautiful.