• Question: what happens when u die

    Asked by bonniew15 on 3 Jun 2019. This question was also asked by hollyb13.
    • Photo: Rebecca Moon

      Rebecca Moon answered on 3 Jun 2019:


      This is an interesting question. The process of dying and the speed at which that happens is actually very complex and dependent on the reason for death. The brainstem contains vital centres which control respiratory and cardiac function in addition to other life-sustaining process. If there is an interruption to oxygen supply to these, impairment of these centres will result in breathing stopping and without oxygen the heart isn’t able to pump blood around the body. The order in which these processes happen will depend on the events leading to death. For example, if there is significant blood loss due to trauma, this will mean there insufficient cardiac output and blood supply to the brain. This will typically result in death happening very rapidly. Alternatively death can happen more slowly in people who have been unwell for some time, and during this time there are often changes to their breathing patterns before breathing and cardiac function stop.

    • Photo: Aina Roca Barcelo

      Aina Roca Barcelo answered on 3 Jun 2019:


      Basically your heart stops pumping which means that blood stops circulating and therefore, the cells in your body are not provided with the nutrients and oxygen they need to survive. Because of that, they start dying. We consider that someone dies completely when their brain cells cease to function. This means that sometimes there is people that have a non-functioning heart (that is, a heart that cannot pump blood) but if they are connected to a machine this can keep them “alive”.

      If the brain dies, we consider the person has died. HOWEVER, Einstein discovered a really interesting physics law according to which “energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.” Basically, it is like an eternal recycling process that loops over and over again so that energy keeps changing form. One of the forms energy is found is through living creatures, like ourselves. When we die, this energy that was once part of us is transformed into another form of energy. In other words, it is recycled to be used elsewhere.

      So technically, our bodies die but the energy that once was part of us, is recycled. Interesting, ugh!?

    • Photo: Shobhana Nagraj

      Shobhana Nagraj answered on 3 Jun 2019:


      Very interesting question…I think the others before me – Rebecca and Aina have answered this really well. As the heart loses it’s ability to pump enough blood around the body to supply all the major organs – like the kidneys, liver, brain, they all become deprived of oxygen and start to shut down. The last two organs to stop working are the heart and the brain. There is a centre in the base of the brain called the brain stem, which contains the major nerves that control breathing and the pumping of the heart. Once this part of the brain (the respiratory centre) is deprived of oxygen for a time, the breathing becomes irregular, slows down and eventually stops, and the heart eventually stops beating also. Once this happens, there will be no breathing, no pulse to feel, and the pupils of the eyes will be fixed and big (dilated), the skin will feel cold, and there won’t be a response from the person. This is what happens to the body, but nobody really knows what happens after death – although there are a lot of theories about this.

    • Photo: Nina Rzechorzek

      Nina Rzechorzek answered on 4 Jun 2019:


      Such an important question – and remains highly debated in the context of science, law, and culture. Others have nicely summarized the process of dying; ‘death’ is the defined end point in that process. The definition of ‘death’ varies by country, and amazingly, there is no clear definition of death written into UK law, although the diagnosis of death using neurological criteria (i.e. ‘brainstem death’) is generally accepted in England and Wales.
      If you want to learn a bit more about brainstem death and how it is determined I strongly recommend reading Appendix 5 of ‘A Code of Practice for the Diagnosis and Confirmation of Death’ by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (revised 2008) which provides an excellent jargon-free summary. The whole thing is free to download here (feel free to bug me if you don’t understand anything in Appendix 5):
      http://aomrc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Code_Practice_Confirmation_Diagnosis_Death_1008-4.pdf

      You may spot that the tests carried out by doctors to confirm death also require that certain ‘reversible’ causes of coma (loss of consciousness) have to be ruled out first. An important one is hypothermia (low body temperature) which has always fascinated me – basically, it is possible to be REALLY cold with no circulation and potentially be revived (I believe the coldest ever recorded temperature of a human that survived accidental hypothermia was 13.7 degrees Celsius – adding weight to the notion that ‘nobody is dead until they are warm and dead’). The report of this female skier was published in the medical journal ‘The Lancet’ in 2000, and describes how the resuscitation effort took place over 9 hours with gradual rewarming and amazingly, the patient made a full recovery. However, it’s important to note that many people have died of hypothermia at temperatures warmer than 13.7, so it’s better not to get stuck beneath a sheet of ice! In most patients we can easily get a good idea of what body temperature is doing, but brain temperature might be slightly different (and it’s much harder to measure), so we don’t know (in the case above) whether the brainstem, also reached 13.7 degrees. During hibernation, the brains of some animals reach near-freezing temperatures, and these animals recover naturally without any brain damage at all which is pretty amazing!

      The other thing to note is that even when brainstem death has been confirmed, that does not mean that all of the cells in every organ suddenly die. Many cell types can survive for a short time without a blood supply (and much better if they are kept cold) – this is what makes organ donation possible. For similar reasons, it is possible to take small samples of e.g. skin from living human volunteers, transport them to the lab, and allow these skin cells to grow in the lab without a blood supply (as long as they are given enough nutrients and oxygen).

      Death and dying always generates a lot of discussion, and whatever your beliefs, try to take part and have a voice in these discussions which are relevant to all of us, and will likely be high on the political agenda in the next few years.

    • Photo: Thiloka Ratnaike

      Thiloka Ratnaike answered on 4 Jun 2019:


      This is an interesting question and I wonder what you mean from the question – the process of dying or what happens after death? The second part is very dependent on your faith/religious beliefs and I completely encourage you to speak with your parents and religious leaders (if you have a religion or not) to find out about these views because it is really useful to build your own belief system around this based on the information you gather. This will hold you in good stead if you ever need to lean on something (your own faith) if one of your loved ones is going through anything awful.
      In terms of the process of dying- I think the others before me have answered this question really well. It can be really difficult to spot when you look at a person who is unwell, but sometimes the doctors and nurses, and other trained professionals can know very quickly when someone is about to die based on what is happening with their heart, breathing and conscious levels. Only the vital organs will keep going (brain, heart, lungs), while the others such as the gut, kidneys, liver start shutting down. It can be quick or very slow and why that is depends on what is causing the disease. The ‘why and how’ comes down to science- trying to understand the mechanisms behind such processes!

    • Photo: Marianne King

      Marianne King answered on 4 Jun 2019:


      I can recommend some resources about what happens to our bodies after death but I’d check with maybe your parents or guardian about whether they’re comfortable with you checking them out as they do go into some gross detail sometimes! Whether there’s an afterlife or not is a hugely personal topic and it wouldn’t be my place to comment on that, as it’s so different for so many people. But for purely body stuff there are some really interesting books that cover certain aspects of what happens when you die. “Smoke gets in your eyes” is a great book by Caitlin Doughty and she writes about working in a crematorium. She’s also written a book about different death/funeral cultures and beliefs around the world called “From here to eternity”, which really opened my eyes to cultural differences in dealing with death. Her YouTube channel is great too, but a bit gruesome sometimes! “Stiff” by Mary Roach is also really gross and interesting, covering all kinds of things that can happen to us when we die. I don’t want to get into the icky detail too much here but it’s a topic I find fascinating.

    • Photo: Kaitlin Wade

      Kaitlin Wade answered on 4 Jun 2019:


      Everyone has answered this so well! It’s a natural process that has to happen eventually so living your best life, appreciating the small and big things, and not taking anything for granted is really important 🙂

    • Photo: Kate Timms

      Kate Timms answered on 5 Jun 2019:


      I agree with Kaitlin. Everyone has told you already about what physically happens, but as there’s no way to avoid it eventually then the best we can do is stay as healthy and happy as we can for as long as possible and enjoy the ride! Which is definitely easier said than done. As for what happens afterwards, no one knows. That’s down to you to decide on what to believe.

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