What do the different physical
stages of dying look like?
There is a rhythm to dying, also called physical stages of dying. We often need to be around quite a few deaths to start recognizing them.
The rhythm of dying tends to have more in common with a stand up base than with a violin. It can sound more like the haunting cooing notes of a mourning dove than the cheerful warble of a nightingale.
Yes, we can detect a recognizable rhythm to dying. At the same time every dying is also unique. Moving to its own beat. Following its very own internal script. Taking whatever time is needed to complete this last journey. And every completion looks different. Very different.
This nearing death experience, as some are calling it, can be best described as a journey. This particular journey has a number of check-in stations. We might call them physical stages of dying. Not everyone passes by every check-in station.
Some of us take our time and linger. Some of us get it over with quickly. For some of us dying is hard work. For some of us dying feels like a breeze. But all of us are heading towards the same destination. Passing through our physical stages of dying. Into death.
about all aspects of death
including the luminous side of dying
for both US and international events.
Emma’s Journey into Death
Let me invite you on a special journey into dying. This is the journey of Emma’s dying and her death.
By describing Emma’s journey we can catch glimpses of the various physical stages of dying. They are only glimpses because every journey into death is a very personal one. All we can do is look for a common pattern. One that is possible without it being certain.
First, let me introduce you to Emma. (By the way, Emma is mostly the story of one woman, an actual client of mine. A few details have been added for the sake of the subject I am describing.)
Emma’s Story Part 1
Emma loved gardening. Her front yard looked like a cloud of many colors, sizes and textures. Her back porch had many pots with plants in them. Pots with trees in it. Hanging pots. Groups of flowering pots. Pots brimming over with flowers.
Emma also loved to cook. Her kitchen was spacious and light. There were cook books in her kitchen. There were cook books in her living room. There were cooking magazines and catalogs on her dining room table. Many of the cook books had sticky notes to remind her of tried and successful recipes.
Emma had been raised in England, but had moved to Canada after the Second World War. In Canada she met her husband Arthur, who turned out to be from England too. Together they raised a son Peter and a daughter Jane. About 15 years ago they had moved to Ashland to retire in a small town atmosphere.
About ten years ago Emma had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, but she did not let Parkinson’s slow her down much for a long time.
When I was called to provide help as a care giver, Emma had just been admitted to hospice. Her diagnosis was end stage Parkinson’s, with less than 6 months to live, though more likely one to two months.
Hospice provided Emma and her family with a number of in home services like a trained nurse, a social worker and a bath aide.
I wanted a perfect ending.
Now I’ve learned, the hard way,
that some poems don’t rhyme,
and some stories don’t have
a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Life is about not knowing,
having to change,
taking the moment and making the best of it,
without knowing what’s going to happen next.
For most of the years that Emma had Parkinson’s she had believed that a cure would be found soon. She had such an optimistic outlook on life. No matter what. She still had more living to do.
But her body started to deteriorate at a more rapid rate. That was not easy for Emma. But she made the best out of it.
It gave her whole family permission to start talking about her approaching death. About saying good bye.
Saying good bye was especially hard for her daughter Jane. Jane felt like she was loosing her best friend. A best friend who had always been with her. All her life.
But by leaving slowly Jane was able to get used to living without Emma. Before Emma stopped talking, they were able to cry together. They were able to sing together. They were able to tell each other “I love you”. And mean it. And feel it.
Completion: The Five Final Tasks
It feels so good when we experience a sense of completion before we die. To know that we have said what we needed to say. What we wanted to say.
We can actually experience the various physical stages of dying more fully, when we have that sense of completion. So we can focus on the task at hand. So we don’t feel like we are being held back by words left unsaid.
This completion requires a few ingredients:
- One is our willingness to simply acknowledge that we are dying. Whether very soon or somewhere down the line does not matter. We have a finite amount of time left. Let’s use it well by being honest about what is going on. It allows everyone around us to be honest too.
Here is a simple list of suggested things to say. Ira Byock calls them The Five Final Tasks.
- Will you forgive me? Is there a forgiving that I need from you? Most likely something from a long time ago? Something I have carried with me for so long. Can I actually ask for it?
When we take the time to speak into these five tasks with our loved ones, they very much contribute to a sense of completion. They help make the leaving easier. They help us feel more prepared for the different physical stages of dying that await us. They help us die more at peace.
Check out his book “The Four Things That Matter Most: A Book About Living” for a more detailed description of these tasks.
Below are the links to all the pages describing the various physical stages of dying. Find out about the most common check in stations through Emma’s story:
Emma’s Story Part 2: A Few Months Before Death
A few months to a month before death occurs is when many a journey into dying begins to become more apparent. That is when the more physical stages of dying can start to be discernible. Click here to read about Emma’s Story Part 2: A Few Months Before Death
We have already come so far on our journey towards death. Such an important journey. Yet there is still more to travel towards death. Luckily we have our check in posts for what can happen a few weeks before death. We have our symptoms of dying. A road map. Sort of. Click here to read about Emma’s Story Part 3: A Few Weeks Before Death
Our journey into dying is moving closer to its final destination. There are more signs of approaching death. We are down to a few days. With their own stages of death. Click here to read about Emma’s Story Part 5: A Few Days Before Death
Death is getting close. Hours close. Many of the signs of impending death are there. We are close to the final stretch. We are nearly there. So close. Click here to read about Emma’s Story Part 5: A Few Hours Before Death
Death is here. All the signs of death are here. The moment we have awaited for so long. The moment we have dreaded for so long. The moment we feared so much. The moment we were ready for. So ready. Click here to read about Emma’s Story Part 6: At Death
We are graced with being birthed breathtakingly into more living