It’s a question we might ask often but, for most faiths and even for atheists, it’s almost impossible to answer. Is there a sense of pain, regret, release, happiness – bliss even?
In reality, there’s a lot we don’t know. Films and books can tell us that life ‘flashes before our eyes’, but it is much harder to gather facts that we can rely on. From medical and faith communities alike though, we have gathered some insights about both the physical deterioration and the mental decline of a person who is dying of natural causes.
Before death or near death…
There are many reports available from people who’ve had a ‘near death experience’ – most of which involve ‘seeing a light’. The oldest account we have is from a French apothecary who documented his feelings when he fainted after a bloodletting.
Believing his body to be near death, the apothecary recalled “such a pure and extreme light that he thought he was in Heaven”. This sense of bright lights and travelling toward an upper plane are common – people who’ve experienced physical trauma often report a sensation of leaving the earthly body.
In fact, “out-of-body experiences” are more common than people think. Many patients who’ve lost consciousness use that phrase to describe what they believe to be a near-encounter with death – much of which might actually be attributed to a person being partly conscious and interpreting the lights and sounds around them. It’s not quite the same as being declared clinically dead and then being revived or brought back to life.
Various medical studies recount patients’ experiences in the moments before the heart stops beating, in a cardiac arrest, as feeling “like nothing” or, by contrast, “something pleasant, a sweet release”. The last few moments before that kind of physical transition aren’t described as being painful at all – which is reassuring.
Physical and mental decline
When a human body ages greatly, or deteriorates due to unexpected illness, there are several common signs that death is near. Oxygen levels reduce, and over a period of time – usually between two weeks and 3 or 4 days – people become drowsy, ‘asleep’ or lose consciousness. The circulation slows, the skin may change in colour, and extremities cool down. It becomes harder for the body to breath. When the heartbeat, blood flow and breathing stop altogether, clinical death occurs – the ‘time of death’. Biological death follows a few minutes later as brain cells deteriorate quickly, due to the lack of oxygen.
If someone becomes too weak to cough or swallow, then there may be a gurgling noise in the back of the throat. This might be disturbing if you’re not prepared for it, because it sounds as though the person might be suffering – but that’s unlikely.
As for how that feels … well, typically, people who die from great old age or an illness that reflects a death from age, aren’t able to communicate much about what they’re feeling physically or mentally. As a result, much of what we believe to be happening is the result of what we see, or hear, or experience as we watch someone die.
It’s true, there are some deaths that involve pain; inevitably, a disease or great trauma will put stress on the body that we translate into discomfort at different levels. But with the great advances in medicine, most people who are receiving palliative care – care just before an anticipated death – will be receiving pain medication to stay more comfortable.
The question, “what does it feel like to die?” is usually followed by, “… and what happens next?” In a way, they’re related. Belief varies greatly from person to person, and so does individual experience. Some faiths believe in forms of paradise and hell. Others believe you will be reincarnated, or ‘born again’ in a different form after you die.
Whatever you believe in, your most positive thoughts can bring comfort to you and to the people around you. For many families, the process of talking about “what does it feel like to die?” can be a very cathartic, expressive, and helpful experience.
If you are spending time with someone who is nearing the end of their life – perhaps in a hospice or a hospital – don’t be afraid to ask questions of caring staff. They’ll have had first-hand experiences that they’ll be able to share with you, and reassure you about what’s happening to the person you care about.