If there is one thing that is certain in life, it’s that we can never prepare for death. Also, few people actually know what to expect when our life clock ticks down to zero. But according to science, death, much like life, is a process.
According to Dr. Nina O’Connor, director of palliative care at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, one of the first processes people go through when they’re dying is they become extremely focused on their family and things that are important to them. The reason this occurs is it gives the person a chance to get rid of any regret they may have. It also allows them to leave this world surrounded by people who can’t bear to see them go.
But the real question millions of people are constantly asking is what happens before and after you die? Thankfully, Dr. O’Connor is able to help answer what happens before you die.
Loss of Appetite: Dr. O’Connor explains that a person’s appetite could begin to dip for various reasons when they’re dying. The first reason is that the body could be producing excess catecholamine, which is a chemical in the bloodstream that suppresses your appetite. The other reason why a person’s appetite might diminish is that their intestines are not functioning at normal capacity. This prevents food from being processed properly, so it might sit in their stomach which can make them feel nauseous. Dr. O’Connor adds that people tend to get upset when a dying loved one refuses to eat. But she says that people need to understand that in most cases it’s their body preventing them from eating, not their mind.
Slow Moving: Dr. O’Connor states that physical fatigue and weakness is profound when someone is nearing the end of their life. The person may talk slower, move even slower, and one of the reasons this may occur is because of the medications they are taking. According to Dr. O’Connor, many people who are in the final days of their lives are on heavy painkillers, which can slow them down. She also adds that having out-of-balance electrolytes can add to this as well. In addition to weakness and fatigue, Dr. O’Connor says that in the final hours, some people have what is called a “death rattle” when they breathe. This occurs because the person is unable to cough up or swallow discharges. It’s painless for the person, but can be troubling for loved ones.
Slipping Away: According to Dr. O’Connor, when a person dies, physicians will check for two types of death; cardiac death and brain death. If a person is a ‘vegetable’, that means that they have no brain activity and life support is what is keeping the organs functioning. Dr. O’Connor states that at that point, life support is turned off because they have passed on. But she also mentions that it can be trickier when it comes to cardiac death. In many cases, a person’s heart stops but is then restarted and functions normally.
Changes After Death: According to Medscape, there are stages that the body goes through immediately after death. The first stage is Rigor Mortis. This is when the body begins to stiffen. In most cases, this begins to occur within a couple of hours after the person has died. Rigor mortis begins to pass within 24 hours after death.
Liver Mortis: After rigor mortis occurs, liver Mortis begins according to Medscape. Liver Mortis is when purple-red coloration appears in certain areas of the body. This occurs because the blood begins to settle in the body under the force of gravity.
Tardieu Spots: When the body dies, certain vessel areas begin to rupture. Medscape states that Tardieu spots are hemorrhages that develop in areas of dependency. The increased pressure and gravity is what causes this to occur.
Algor Mortis: Naturally, our bodies are extremely warm. It’s the only way for blood to properly flow through the body. But once the body dies, the temperature begins to cool off. With no blood to flow through the body, it’s natural that it begins to cool down. This can happen gradually, but if the temperature is cooler than the body temperature at the time of death, it can happen immediately according to Medscape.
Tache Noire: When the eyes are not completely shut when someone dies, tache noire occurs. Medscape explains that this happens because post-mortem drying begins to occur. It’s a dark, red-brown stripe that appears across the eyes.
Decomposition: According to Medscape, decomposition is a process of endogenous autolysis and putrefaction. Autolysis is the destruction of cell tissues by their own enzymes. Putrefaction is rotting or decaying of a body.
Coping With Impending Death: According to Gerald Shiener, a psychiatrist at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, there is only so much a person can do when they know they’re going to die soon. But he says that going over mixed and negative feelings in relationships and taking the opportunity to put things into words that you never had a chance to say is a good start to cope. He adds that if you have time to plan for your death, it gives you that opportunity to say goodbye in a meaningful way and leave nothing on the table. Spend as much time with the person as you possibly can and try to reminisce about the good times you two shared together instead of focusing on the inevitable.
Don’t Rush Mourning or Grief: Shiener explains that grief comes in stages. The first stage is disbelief and denial, especially if the tragic news is unexpected and unwarranted. The next stage is anger, this usually occurs because of how inevitable death is and we feel helpless because there is nothing we can do. Shiener adds that eventually everyone slowly accepts the outcome piece by piece. But one thing people should never do is rush these stages, Shiener says. Everyone has their own schedule of how long it takes to get through each stage. The only thing that loved ones around them can do is be supportive.
Let People In: When dealing with an inevitable death, there is a lot you can do to prepare. But there are also a lot of obstacles to overcome according to Rev. Janet Frystak, a chaplain with the Palliative Care and Home Hospice Program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Often people deal with their anger by directing it towards the medical community and putting blame on them, Frystak adds. But she also mentions that it might be good to seek some outside help. She says that outsiders can offer a more objective perspective. She also offers an exercise called “a life review” which is when a person asks their mom, brother, dad, sister or spouse what has been the most meaningful thing and the greatest sorrow in their life. This exercise can help each member deal with their emotions together.