Humans are fascinated by death — and I suspect that a lot of that fascination stems from the fact that most of us just can’t comprehend death in its entirety. Indeed, the answer to the question “What does it feel like to die?” is largely, we don’t really know — mostly because (for what are perhaps obvious reasons) there aren’t a lot of ways we can gather this information. We do have some guesses, though, so we’re not totally in the dark — and we’re still searching whenever and however we can, whether that’s through scientific research or through listening to people recount their first-hand experiences with death.
We do know what happens to the body when you die: Your oxygen depletes, which slows your circulation, making your skin mottle and your extremities turn cold; it gets harder to breathe, and what breathing you are able to do becomes noisy (although for what it’s worth, the “death rattle,” as it’s called, isn’t thought to be painful); and when your heartbeat, breathing, and circulation stop, clinical death occurs. Biological death follows a few minutes later as your brain cells die from the lack of oxygen.
But as for how it feels? Well, a lot of it depends on exactly how you die — which also affects the knowability of the whole thing. People who die from illness, for example, aren’t typically able to describe what they’re feeling; as Margaret Campbell, a decades-long palliative caregiver and nursing professor at Wayne State University told The Atlantic in 2016, “Roughly from the last two weeks until the last breath, somewhere in that interval, people become too sick, or too drowsy, or too unconscious to tell us what they’re experiencing.” As a result, much of the talk around death in these situations centers around what those observing it see, rather than what those experiencing it feel.
We can, however, sketch out a few things that people might feel as they die, based both on the research we have been able to conduct and what people who have technically died, but who have subsequently been resuscitated can tell us about what they remember. Ultimately, death — like so many other things — is an extremely personal event; you might experience some of these things, all of them, or none at all.
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1. You Lose Your Senses
According to palliative care specialist James Hallenbeck, who spoke with The Atlantic in 2016, something called “active dying” occurs during the final few days from someone who’s dying gradually. During this period, you tend to lose your senses in a particular order: Hunger and thirst are the first to go; then you lose the ability to speak, followed by the ability to see. Hearing and touch typically hold out a little longer, but they eventually go, too.
2. You Might Feel Like You’re Dreaming
The above is a comment from an AskReddit thread from about four years ago asking people who have been clinically dead to describe what they felt during their experience — and, indeed, this lines up with some of the research on the matter. A study published in 2014 examined the dreams of people in hospice who were near death, and the overwhelming majority — about 88 percent — reported having extremely vivid dreams that sometimes even carried over into their waking hours. Furthermore, a lot of these dreams and visions featured loved ones who had already died. In many cases, they were comforting, rather than frightening.
3. You Might See Your Life Flash Before Your Eyes
Or see a bright light that you're moving toward, or feel like you're leaving your body. According to research from 2013 out of the University of Michigan, the brain experiences a surge of activity right before death — and it’s this surge of activity that might be responsible for common elements of near-death experiences: It might cause you to perceive your life flashing before your eyes, or a bright light that you’re heading towards, or even your consciousness leaving your own body. Said lead author Dr, Jimo Borjigin to the BBC of the study, “A lot of people thought that the brain after clinical death was inactive or hypoactive, with less activity than the waking state, and weshow that is definitely not the case. If anything, it is much more active during the dying process than even with the waking state.”
4. You Might Still Be Aware Of What’s Going On Around You For A Time
According to recent research, participants in a study examining what people experienced during the period of time in which they were officially “dead” reported “a perception of awareness”—that is, their brains were still functional — enough for some, in fact, to be able to hear conversations and see events occurring around them which were later confirmed by people who were conscious and present at the time.
5. It Might Be Painful
This is where the manner of death comes into play: If you experience something like a traumatic physical injury or an allergic reaction, it might be painful, as this Redditor noted in that same AskReddit thread from four years ago. I can think of fewer ways to die that are more frightening to me than suffocating, largely because of the pain factor that’s likely involved.
I also think this piece from San Francisco writer and activist Cris Gutierrez is worth reading, although fair warning that it’s quite harrowing. Gutierrez died of pancreatic cancer on Aug. 4, 2013 — and she wrote about it as it happened. This piece is the result. She wrote of the pain that has resulted from areas of her body shutting down from the cancer, or from complications from it; she wrote of the mental frustration of not being able to do all of the things she wanted to do; but she also wrote, “But for myself, tragedy, anguish — these have no room, in my heart. I just want to die in not too much pain,surrounded by the ones I love. I want to help them find what peace they can in the time remaining. And if you want to give me a special going away present, spread the word about the BCRA gene. Save some lives.” Food for thought.
6. You Might Feel Surprisingly OK
In 1957, herpetologist Karl Patterson Schmidt was bitten by a poisonous snake. He didn’t realize the bite would kill him about a day later;however, he was interested in tracking the symptoms he experienced, so over the course of the next day, he kept a diary of what he experienced. He recorded his observations in a clinical fashion, writing that he experienced “strong chill & shaking,” “bleeding of mucous membranes in the mouth,” and “slight bleeding … going on in the bowels” — but interestingly, he seems to have felt kind of… OK. On his last day alive, he apparently felt OK enough to call the museum he worked at and told them he’d be back the next day. Unfortunately, though, he didn’t make it that long; his condition deteriorated fast, and he died not too much later.
7. You Might Get Dizzy
In 2012, footballer (by which I mean soccer player, for Americans) Fabrice Muamba suffered a heart attack in the middle of a game, was clinically dead for a time, and was successfully resuscitated. In an interview with The Guardian two years later, he spoke of what he could remember — which wasn’t much. He felt dizzy, and thinks he had double vision, but that’s all he knows.
8. You Might Feel Nothing At All
After Muamba experienced the dizziness and double vision, he said he just felt… nothing. It wasn’t positive, really, but it wasn’t painful or negative, either. In some ways, this reminds me of the “active dying” those who are dying gradually experience: Without your senses, what do you feel? This is speculation on my part, but probably just nothing.
Death still is — and will likely remain for some time — the undiscovered country; but although much of it is a mystery, we're still doing what we can to unravel it. We may not know much, but what we do know is at least something. Right?