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He Just Died, But Is He Still Somewhat Aware?

Bob Baugher, Ph.D.


You are at his deathbed and watch in awe as his breath is going in and out—in—and out—in….and out…. and then in…and out….There it is. He’s gone. It’s over. After a long struggle, he’s taken his last breath. And there you are looking at his face—a face that now is without life. He’s dead. There may be part of you that is relieved that the long fight to stay alive is now over. You may have wondered how long it would take—and now you know. In addition to relief you also have several other feelings swirling around: sadness, anxiety, overwhelmed, confused, and wondering, “What am I going to do without him?” During these moments the last thing you might be thinking is: “Perhaps he’s still somewhat aware. Maybe his brain hasn’t yet totally died.” There are countless stories all over the world in which survivors report still feeling their deceased loved one around them. “I feel him here.” “Yes, she died, but I still feel her presence.” Is this simply wishful thinking or is there perhaps something else going on?


Recent research seems to have begun to answer the question: “Does the brain totally cease to function at the moment breathing stops—at the instant the heart ceases to beat?” A June 12, 2023 article by Jordan Kinard (Why Dying People Exhibit a Burst of Lucidity) approached this question. Although most of the article is a discussion of the title, a portion of the article gives us insight into the brain. We all know that it is possible in some cases to revive a person with CPR or a defibrillator several minutes after so-called “death.”


Researcher Sam Parnia states that many brain cells can remain somewhat intact for hours to days after death. Hours? Days? What is going on here? Isn’t dead—well—dead? Maybe not. Jimo Borjigin, U. of Michigan professor found that just prior to what we define as death there are a surge of gamma waves that are particularly intense in a brain region called the “posterior cortical hot zone” a region in the back of the brain that appears to be essential to conscious experience. Apparently, when the brain experiences a sudden reduction of oxygen, it stimulates the posterior cortical hot zone as a last-ditch attempt to preserve itself as all other bodily systems fail.


If these speculations hold true, what does this mean for us when our loved one has just died? What this says to me is that, after the so-called moment of death, our loved one may experience some degree of awareness. On an awareness scale of zero to 100 with zero representing not at all aware and 100 being totally aware, it may be that, even minutes after “death,” our loved one’s awareness may be greater than zero—not 80 or 90, but not zero. Below is a scale of awareness:

Not at all aware Slightly aware Somewhat aware Very aware Totally aware

|--------------------|------------------------|----------------------------|----------------------|

0 25 50 75 100


Present research has no way of determining where on the scale a deceased person’s awareness would lie. It may be that all dead folks are at zero; or that only some are, while others are greater than zero. Until that day comes (if ever) when we can know the awareness status of a person’s brain, perhaps our best response is to assume our loved one can hear all that we say during the minutes and perhaps even hours after “death.” This is especially important for those who were not there at the end. There are countless stories of loved ones distraught because they arrived “too late.” Today, until we know better, we can encourage survivors to say everything they wish to say. Why not? It may not only be helpful for the survivors, but who knows, it may also be of comfort for the deceased person to hear their final messages of comfort and love from those they are leaving behind.

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