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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 4/12/24 – Reflecting On the Last Recall

Things that I find interesting or important are probably not in everyone’s wheelhouse. One of the times this became readily apparent to me was years ago when I was vacationing with family. I was reading a book about the Black Death in the Middle Ages. While the pneumonic plague may not be light vacation reading, it is the kind of thing I find fascinating. It changed how world societies functioned in short order. So, forgive me if I write about things that others may find morbid and I find fascinating. This week’s topic is about our final moments, but hopefully readers will also find it comforting. We all will end, and humans have long pondered what happens when the lights go out.


Recently, I ran across an article on research findings about end of life and what we may experience. It involved an older male who was in the hospital for a medical problem. He died while undergoing brain imaging. Neuroscientists were able to examine recorded activity of a dying human brain in a way that has not ever occurred before. They found rhythmic brain wave patterns around the time of death that are similar to those occurring during dreaming, memory recall, and meditation. We now have some evidence of what happens when we die that we did not have before. This is new information on a topic that is as old as we are. What could be more fascinating?


The research article published in Frontiers in Aging in 2022 can be found here. What they found was consistent with what people who have undergone near death experiences report. Accounts of reliving your entire life in the space of mere seconds. Feeling at peace and like it was something that the person was observing from outside of themselves. I read about it a few weeks ago and it really stuck with me. Like everyone else, the longer I live the more people who I care about die. I find it really comforting that this may be what their final experience was like. You may also.


I then found this Journal article titled Near-Death Experiences Evidence for Their Reality that examined what people undergo. They found that there was a great deal of variation of experience. Common characteristics of those with near death events include a perception of seeing and hearing apart from the physical body, passing into or through a tunnel, encountering a mystical light, intense and generally positive emotions, a review of part or all of their prior life memories, encountering deceased loved ones, and a choice to return to their earthly life.


Is there any facet of the human condition we have not pondered more than what happens when we die? I doubt it, yet we rarely talk about it. Years ago, I read a book authored by a surgeon, How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter. His thinking on writing the book was that if people knew more about how we actually pass, that we would be less afraid of the process. It was a runaway best seller. I think he was right. We are all curious. My sense of such things, informed by recovery is that facing things we are afraid of is the only way to deal with life and in this case death.


It has been a few weeks since I ran across the article on this older man and what his brain scans showed us about the process of death neurologically. The brain is our operating system, and it brings me comfort that in final shut down it has a process that can include calm, reflective recollection. One of the things that apply broadly to our biology is that most everything in our makeup has a function. Things that were not helpful to us from an evolutionary perspective end up getting eliminated over time, although we can end up with vestiges such as gill remnants. If our hardware and software have necessary design features, what purpose would these final brain wave patterns serve? I will leave that final question for the readers to ponder.  


None of us will be able to share what happens to us with those we love as our lives end. It is not possible given a sample size of one to know if what happened to the elderly man in the brain imaging machine experienced at point of death is universal to all end of life or even a common feature of a death. The data on near death experience would at least suggest that such experiences are relatively common. I am grateful to know that my final moment as life flickers out may be the experience of running through my life. A short reel of the finest moments over the course of the run. What more could we ask for? What do you think would make your clip? We all have today to add a few more snippets.


We do not know much about the patient who died from whom we learned about what can happen in the brain at point of death. All we know about him was that he was an 87-year-old from Estonia who had epilepsy, was placed in a continuous electroencephalography (EEG) and that during the recordings, he had a heart attack and passed away. But in doing so, he has helped us learn something new about a fundamental question of life. I am grateful for this man and his unique contribution to human knowledge. Not only does it give me hope for whatever happens to me in my final moment, I am comforted to consider that those who I have loved and who are now gone may well have experienced a calm reflection on their lives as they passed.

What are you grateful for today? 

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