What’s it like to die?

May 2022


Dying is a completely natural process and is as individual as we are.

Dr Sheila Popert, medical director at Prospect Hospice, cares for patients at the end of their lives. In this article she talks about what it’s like to die so we know more about what to expect. 

Obviously none of us know what the moment of death is like, but our experiences do show us that for the vast majority of people it is a gradual, peaceful process.

A ‘peaceful death’ is often regarded as a process whereby people gradually slip away. They start to spend more time asleep, lose their appetite, and aren’t interested in drinking. This is the gradual shutting down and fading of the person until eventually they are spending most of their time asleep, sometimes dipping in and out of consciousness.

It’s not uncommon for patients to have periods of unconsciousness in their last days, which can last anything from a matter of hours to several days. Patients often describe these periods as similar to being deeply asleep, completely unaware and unconscious, where they don’t respond to voice or touch.

We do know from reports of people who have been admitted to intensive care units that the last sensation we lose is hearing. For this reason, it is so important that when you are with someone who is dying, even if you believe them to be unconscious, the conversations are ones you would be happy having around them if they were awake.

Before someone dies, their skin can become pale, moist, mottled, and slightly cool. Their face and body may relax and their breathing pattern changes, varying between being really fast or really slow until it slows quite significantly. Their breathing can become noisy; this may be distressing for those by the bedside but not for the dying person. There can be long gaps between breaths, which may last from about thirty seconds to a minute or two. Ultimately, their breathing stops and they die.

Often, this last period is peaceful and not at all traumatic. It’s very unusual for somebody to die in distress.

However, the period leading up to those last hours or days, for some, can be incredibly difficult. People can have symptoms such as pain or vomiting, be agitated, and in a lot of distress; they may have symptoms that are too difficult to control by themselves – this is where a hospice can help.

Nurse specialists and doctors can step in to manage symptoms and ensure that even if the patient is at home, there are enough medications to help. Some hospices offer support services both in their building as well as at patients’ homes depending on patient preference.

Death and dying are completely individual, much like childbirth: for some people it’s a breeze and for others it’s more difficult, but there is help out there. What I think is most important is that people have open and honest discussions about dying, talking with their loved ones about their preferences for before, during, and after death, and recognising that dying is a natural part of living.

Below are some useful resources about death and dying:

I recommend ‘What Does It Feel Like to Die?: Inspiring New Insights into the Experience of Dying’ by Jennie Dear to learn more about death and dying. Find an interesting article about the book here.

Another useful resource is this video by Hospice New Zealand. Watch the video here.

Finally, here is our booklet about ‘understanding what Happens when someone is dying’, which describes some of the changes that happen to a person in their final days and hours. Find our leaflet here.

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