I’m no longer a cop. I’ve retired. Instead of rushing to a death scene and investigating it, now as a nurse with a close association with Hospice, I often have to watch people die, literally before my eyes. I suppose it’s a curse that now, when I watch television or read a novel, I’m highly critical about how death is portrayed in those media. It’s so seldom based on reality, that I fear even our most popular writers and directors have a fairy-tale romance with the fantasy of death.
Let’s talk about violent death first. In literally dozens of cases where I was present when people who were fatally injured just happened to expire, I was struck by how slow the process actually was in relation to how it’s often portrayed. Yes, I’m talking about vehicular accidents, as most victims of violent crime have expired long before the police arrive, or they manage to survive until placed in an ambulance or taken to a medical facility. Most cops don’t actually witness the death of a person from violence. Only the aftermath.
Back to the topic. The human organism goes through various stages between being conscious and talking, to being unconscious and “circling the drain.” One thing is nearly universal, short of being blown into tiny pieces, the process of death is seldom instantaneous. Be it gunshot to the head, heart, or lungs, or blunt trauma, knives or flame-thrower, the dying more often than not, take their own sweet time exanguinating! That time can seem like interminable minutes to even hours as in the case of our own President Abraham Lincoln.
Since many of our literary protagonists are also killers, either by profession or by incident, we have to wonder how it is, each and every one of their victims manage to dutifully expire on cue since it is not the spirit that lingers on, but rather the organism that is determined to survive at all costs!
I once watched a film from WWII about Marines defeating Japanese machine gun emplacements. They were using flame-throwers to roast the defenders alive. Let me recreate the scene.
After the concrete bunker was inundated with a flaming jellied gasoline mixture the defenders exited only to be shot down. One; however, was not shot. He exited looking much like a grilled hot dog, no longer clothed, skin blackened, split and peeling. His lungs had to have been roasted from breathing super-heated air within the bunker. At first, he stood there amongst the Marines, but slowly, inexorably, strength left his limbs and he was forced to sit, shivering. As the Marines gathered around smoking and talking, his eyes went from man to man, I suppose hoping for assistance or perhaps in resignation, until his eyes began to lose focus. Then, his body began to list like a stricken ship, with only his elbow supporting the flame-ruined torso. His head, too heavy to be supported any longer, searched for a place to rest. The man’s dying took nearly ten minutes. In the end, agonal breathing hinted that his moment had arrived. Still, the organism struggled to live.
I’ve seen similar things up close where major trauma or catastrophic illness has made further life-saving efforts moot. The dying, whether or not they are ready to go, can’t stop the organism from clinging to life, often long minutes after the last breath is drawn. So, if you’re going to write it, understand that if it’s not realistic, it will always be total “fiction!”