A friend of mine is gone. I was privileged to be part of her passing, a process that started with her decision to quit chemotherapy, progressed to her move into hospice, and culminated with her last breath. Sitting alone with her lifeless body, I began to wonder when the spirit leaves. When exactly does the light go out?
The physical stages of death are observable and often measurable. The choice to stop taking medications, putting affairs in order, making amends, recounting past events, and seeing those most dear indicate the decision to die has likely been made. Physical strength wanes, and the person becomes more tired, quiet, and removed. They sleep more and eat less. The worry lines start to fade, and breathing gets slower and more shallow. The extremities start to turn blue because they are no longer are receiving the oxygen they need. The eyes close. The person no longer speaks, but they are listening. They may weakly squeeze your hand to respond, or there may be no detectable response. Visitors come and go, saying their goodbyes, looking for and giving forgiveness, or struggling to get one last moment with their loved one. Everyone, including the person passing, is trying to find closure, which may or may not come.
The body’s core temperature remains warm even though the rest of the body feels cold—perhaps the energy that powers the senses is beginning to concentrate at the solar plexus. Or maybe it is the spirit gathering itself in preparation to leave. Eventually the solar plexus starts to feel cool to the touch, and breathing becomes even more shallow and infrequent. The last breath is different, and the family knows something has changed . . .
As I sat there alone, staring at my deceased friend, I could see the physical changes continue. Pallor mortis takes place, and the skin quickly picks up a yellow hue. I wonder, Can you still hear me? I believe her spirit can, so I try to offer her closure for those things I knew she worried about. Your family is planning to stay close. Your son is finding his strength. Your grandchildren will always remember what you did for them.
Most doctors and nurses base the time death on the lack of any physical vital signs, like pulse, heart beat, brain activity, and breathing. Those sensitive to non-physical energy report it continues pulsing even when the physical vital signs end. Is this the energy of spirit? A nurse comes in and, without any prompting from me, explains she can feel energy for several minutes after the vital signs are gone. Maybe this is my answer. The energy of spirit is the last to go, having waited patiently for the body to stop functioning before it departs. Whatever the truth is about when the spirit leaves, I grieve for my friend, whose light has gone out on this plane, but still shines brightly in our memories.