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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