real life

"This is what it feels like to die. It's nothing like we expected."

The question “What happens after we die?” is one that none of us, religious, agnostic or atheist, have a definitive answer to.

Since the beginning of human history we have contemplated our own mortality, speculating about what might wait for us at the other end.

This week, a Reddit thread emerged that called for the experiences of people who had died and then been revived. Some of the responses might be the closest we can come to really understanding what it feels like to die.

The most overwhelming answer was that “actual death is painless”. Very few people reported to feeling any pain once they had medically been pronounced dead.

"Actual death is painless." Image via iStock. 

Two words appeared more than any other in the discussion thread. The first being 'nothing', and the second being 'peace'.

One user retold his experience as such:

Two months ago I was OD'd on anesthesia in an oral surgeons office. Coded in the ER and was dead for under a minute, but fuck it, it counts.

Between me going out and me waking up in the ICU there is nothing. No black void, lost loved ones, messages from the other side. Nothing. Processing it since then, I don't know if there's nothingness is comforting or terrifying.

Another user wrote "It is sad though cause it's nothing... life is smelly and loud and busy and interesting and fun and colorful and death, death is absolute nothingness."

Others didn't interpret it as quite so sad. A number of contributors were comforted by the overwhelming sense of peace. One man wrote:

Without wanting to, all my fear just disappeared in an instant and I had this amazing peace I have never felt before or since. I can't even describe how peaceful it was.

"...all my fear just disappeared in an instant." Image via iStock. 

Another reflected that "It felt like home," and many described a sensation of warmth.  Some found the sense of peace and comfort quite dangerous. One user was 15 and had gone through three to four months of chemotherapy. A critical nose bleed then landed him in hospital. He spent the following weeks in the ICU, "slipping in and out of life". He describes how he "stopped caring" just wanting to "black out again...the unconsciousness seemed easier". In his words:

Being asleep was easy, being awake meant more pain and less dignity. So if you want to know what it's like to be that close to death, it's tempting. It's like wanting to hit the snooze button on your alarm at 7am. And maybe you do hit it once or twice but then you remember that you have work or school and that sleep can wait because you've still got shit to do.

There is comfort in the idea that dying isn't terrifying. One user reflected "I am still afraid to die, but I'm not worried about what happens after that."

Now you can have a living funeral. Post continues below. 

A number of contributors had their life flash before their eyes, however, it wasn't at all like in the movies. Rather than a montage, some described remembering random snippets of their life, as though they were "idly flipping through a book". A father had a particularly moving experience:

I didn't see my life flash before me, but I did have a memory of a day about a year before where I was just playing in a field with my little boy. I hadn't thought about it before then, but now I kept seeing him, clear as day, laughing in the sun. It was the most vivid, intense memory I've ever had of anything. I was so at peace and that memory made me the weird, peaceful kind of happy, like my work was done. I knew I was about to die and I was totally fine with it.

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"It was the most vivid, intense memory I've ever had of anything." Image via iStock.

In among the memories and flashbacks, were stories of being reunited with relatives who had passed away. One story was particularly fascinating.

When I opened my eyes I saw my brother squatting on the pavement next me to. This was odd because my brother has been dead from an OD for several years. I couldn't really gather the presence of mind to speak so I just looked at him. The only other thing I remember is him glancing at his watch and saying something like "They'll be here soon" and then walking away...that and the ambulance ride to intensive care where I was pronounced dead and then opened my eyes a few minutes later...

Researchers do not dismiss or trivialise these sorts of experiences. Last year, the biggest ever study was published on what it feels like to die. Scientists at the University of Southampton spent four years examining more than 2,000 people whose hearts had stopped, throughout the UK, US and Austria.

The most compelling finding, was that nearly 40 per cent of people described a kind of "awareness" whilst being clinically declared dead.

Previously, it was believed that consciousness stopped about 20 to 30 seconds after the heart does. But the ability for patients to recall events that actually occurred after they were assumed dead, means that this simply cannot be the case.

Some vividly remembered leaving their body and watching their own resuscitation from outside themselves.

Dr Sam Parnia concluded, "Clearly, the recalled experience surrounding death now merits further genuine investigation without prejudice."

The accounts are conflicting, complex and mystifying. And that is why the discussion around what happens during and after death remains one of the most fascinating we can have.

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