NINE – Once more in the waiting room

“Death is not an event in life. We do not live to experience death. Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.” – Wittgenstein

When I relate the events of that sunny afternoon, I usually receive one of two reactions. Either there is horror at the thought of me lying there simply waiting for an inevitable death. Or there is fascination at the question of what happened in the three or four minutes that my heart was stopped.

For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on the experience of death from the inside out. Forgive me if some of them seem simplistic.

Imagine you are waking up first thing in the morning. Something momentous has happened the evening before, but the first filaments of consciousness that filter through the echoes of your brain are not memories. Maybe the birds are singing, or the rain is beating on the window or the wind is whistling through the trees. For a moment, this is the only experience that exists in your universe. Then memory returns and the momentous events of the night before crash in on you once again, overrunning the front line defences of your brain. Except that there is one memory that eludes you. Last night you lay awake, tossing and turning, unable to get to sleep. You cried out for sleep, you counted sheep until you reached a number that was impossible even for sheep. You turned to checking off rabbits for surely they are more plentiful, but still no sleep. Then, inexplicably, you fell asleep. The next day you can recall the anxiety, the inability to sleep, the sheep and the rabbits but you cannot remember the instant of falling asleep.

Thus it was with my experience of death. A friend of mine insisted that, with my heart having stopped for such a significant period, I had indeed suffered death and that my resuscitation must, therefore, have been a return from the dead. For my part, this limited logic seems to be defied by my experience. If I was not aware of the moment of death, can it be truly said that I have experienced death? It strikes me that we should draw a distinction here, between the moment of death and death as the period after life. Clearly, I experienced something akin to the ‘moment of death’ but, as with falling asleep, this moment was gone before it reached my awareness. Perhaps, therefore, none of us experience the actual moment of death. Many years later I discovered Wittgenstein, “Death is not an event in life. We do not live to experience death. Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.” I think I vaguely understood what he was talking about.

So, if the actual moment of death is something that we never experience, why do we fear it so much? I believe that there are two aspects to this. The first is fear of death itself and the second is fear of the manner of our death. The latter is associated with suffering and pain and is, of course, self-evident. Who wouldn’t fear a long and painful death? We’ve all seen the movies “for God sake, Dan, shoot me, put me out of my misery“, and to some degree we have the power to ameliorate this fear. Not to put too fine a point on it, the nearest bridge would no doubt do the job. Having said that, this is not the fear that concerns me here, though I will return to it later. Rather I am concerned with the fear of death per se. Unoriginal though it sounds, I believe that this is essentially a fear of the unknown. Knowledge and experience breed familiarity and this familiarity brings with it a corresponding, if false, sense of security. The prospect of death is like peering into a darkened room; we have no idea what awaits us other than that it is likely to be something different from our current experience. This involves a separation from everything we have become attached to. We must say good-bye to our life, to our experience, to our loved ones and perhaps most importantly, to the future we had laid out for ourselves. Ironically, this is why, for some, suicide has its attractions.

But what about the after-life? Did not the three or four minutes when I was dead to the world give me some insight into this, no matter how small? Was I not aware of anything? I am afraid that the answer to this question is that I have no conscious knowledge of this time whatsoever. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I didn’t experience existence, simply that I have no recollection of it. Perhaps, my spirit was doing a lap of the track, somersaults maybe, cartwheels of joy? Perhaps it was being dragged screaming into the abyss. I mean, it must have been doing something. Or, reader, are you as I was, a disbeliever in the spiritual dimension? I had a rational, some would say cynical view of the human condition. Together my experience and intellect had consigned the spiritual side of my existence to the irrelevant folder in the farther recesses of my belief system.

At this point I think it is worth making the distinction between awareness and existence. Things exist (as we understand existence) even though we may be unaware of them. It seems, for example, that we dream whilst we are asleep, with very limited awareness. Therefore, we cannot say for certain that I had no experience of that period of ‘death’, simply that I had no awareness, or even possibly, that I had no recollection.

Or does nothing exist outside our individual awareness

“I think, therefore, I……….. where was I?”

What about God? There was a time on that cricket field when I knew I was going to die. My heart had reached a stage where it couldn’t last much longer. I spent the last few minutes of this horrendous experience, therefore, in the full knowledge that they would be my last. So what then of God? Surely my mind must have turned to him, if only to cover my options. I have a vision of an insurance salesman turning up at my door just as a vicious wind starts to uproot the roof on my house. How quickly do I sign?

The truth, however, is that I spent those miserable few minutes without any thought of God whatsoever. I may have said God I feel terrible or God this is murder but these were not addresses to the almighty, merely turns of phrase. I didn’t even think negatively of God. It simply did not occur to me to consider him. This is remarkable, stunning even, when you consider my Roman Catholic upbringing. But there you have it – God had been drummed out of me to the extent that even the beckoning finger of death could not restore my soul. Ego dominated my sense of identity and there was little room for spirituality. As the archetypal boarding school graduate, my emotional development had been retarded the day of my abandonment at age ten that dreadful day all those years ago, (I feel disinclined to count them).

The really pathetic thing is that, were it not for circumstance, I would have died a slow, undignified, miserable death. No catharsis, no deliverance, no redemption. Pointless.

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