How Do You Want to Die?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I asked that question in an earlier note of readers discussing Jennie Dear’s piece on what it feels like to die. This first reader prefers to go like his grandfather did:

He was a really quiet guy, just like me. He and my grandmother went visiting a friend in their neighborhood when they were both in their late 70s. During the visit, while my grandmother and the neighbor were having a conversation and my grandfather sat quietly listening to them, he died without uttering a sound and without moving. He left as quietly as he always was in life. It was just perfect. I wouldn’t mind going like that.

This next reader points to another abrupt death by excerpting a 1995 obituary for Mitt Romney’s father:

George W. Romney, an automobile executive who became a three-term Governor of Michigan, a Republican Presidential candidate and a member of the Nixon Cabinet, died yesterday at his home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., a Detroit suburb. He was 88. His wife, Lenore, whom he married in 1931, found him collapsed yesterday morning on the treadmill in the exercise room of their home, their son G. Scott Romney said. The office of the Oakland County Medical Examiner issued a statement saying only that Mr. Romney had died of natural causes.

Suddenly. Of natural causes. At a ripe old age. After having lived an accomplished and fulfilling life. And having felt well enough that morning to have gotten on a treadmill.

Another reader prefers a more serene exit: “Having been present for three deaths, I think slipping away in the arms of Morpheus has a lot to recommend it.” (Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams, is the root of the word morphine.) This next reader prefers another drug, psilocybin: “I’d want to die shoeless, in the sun and on the grass, consumed by magic mushrooms.”

This reader doesn’t want to see it coming:

In my sleep. Or … freezing to death. I hear that’s kind of like going to sleep.

That’s true according to this personal account from Brian Phillips, a pilot who got stranded in the freezing cold while tracking the Iditarod:

It was the first time I ever understood why freezing to death is sometimes described as peaceful or soothing or just like falling asleep, descriptions that had always seemed to hint at some unfathomable mind-transformation within the freezing person, some power extreme cold had to enchant the brain’s basic mechanisms of homeostasis. It didn’t feel violent, that was the thing. Even with the wind ripping past you. It was like certain parts of your body just accrued this strange hush. Like you were disappearing piece by piece.

This reader gets dark: “Given the choice, suicide by firearm—quick, painless, and not as messy as pulling a Jean-Paul Marat in the bathtub.” Another gets romantic: “I want to die in my own bed, in my husband’s arms, who expires with me at exactly the same time!” Another gets more casual: “I want to die like my grandfather—in seconds, from a massive heart attack, at the age of 85, while out on a date.”

Let’s hear from a healthcare professional:

We see too much prolongation of suffering, so I’m extremely conservative on my end-of-life game plan. If I’m diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer, for instance, I say screw the Whipple and chemo/radiation and I’m making vacation plans. I see no point in prolonging my life a year or two if it’s a constant merry-go-round between hospitals and specialists and my QOL [quality of life] is in the toilet. I’m more interested in living than surviving.

Along those lines, here’s a reader in Bend, Oregon:

A sudden death after a long, healthy life would be perfect. But if I’m not so lucky, I’m very glad I live in Oregon, where voters passed a Death With Dignity Act 22 years ago. I would take full advantage.

This reader wants to disappear in an instant:

I don’t care when I die, but I want it to be sudden. I don’t want time to anticipate, I don’t want to have to try to come to terms with my own mortality, and I don’t want to have to say goodbye to anyone. I just want to be living, and then suddenly not be living anymore.

I don’t mean for that to be quite so depressing—only that if I keel over eight minutes from now, I won’t be around to have any kind of negative feelings about my death. The idea of non-consciousness and non-existence is a comfort to me, the same way heaven is to spiritual people. I want to be around for a while longer, but I wouldn’t have the capacity to be upset if I weren’t.

Speaking of a sudden unexpected death, over the weekend I caught up with an old podcast episode hosted by a friend of mine, author Chris Ryan, interviewing another friend of mine, animal photographer Carli Davidson. One of the many topics they discussed was how Americans typically prolong the dying process to a pathological extent. Chris cited a clip from BBC’s Planet Earth in which a seal is eaten by a Great White Shark in the blink of an eye (though the filmmakers prolong the moment with extreme slo-mo):

Chris admires the seal’s end of life:

These harbor seals live on average 30 years. So let’s say that seal got eaten in its prime—was 22, 25, somewhere like that. So that’s 25 years of lying on warm rocks, hanging out with your friends, swimming around, eating fish, doing what you do—and then you die so quickly, so unexpectedly that [the filmmakers] have to slow it down to 1/40th speed.

Back to the human kingdom, here’s another reader with a death in the family:

One winter morning in 1971, my father sat down at the kitchen table, told my mother he was not feeling well, and died. I was born about a month later. My mother had, roughly, nothing.

The point? Well, however I end up dying, I will at least not die without having seen my child, and I will not leave my wife with nothing. (First thing I did when she told me she was pregnant was to sit down and sort out life insurance, testament, etc.) So even if I die a horrible death in all sorts of other ways, I’ll count it a good death in those limited respects.

Another reader is also thinking about her family:

My death doesn’t have to be painless and I’d like to know it was coming. I would rather die after my husband, or at the same time; I would worry too much about him. I would also like to be sure my kids are at least on the road to a healthy adulthood.

This next reader doesn’t really want to think about the death question:

My preference is for something quick, like a light switch being thrown. But in death, as in life, I’ll deal with what I get rather than waste a lot of time worrying about what I want.

And finally, this simple response is a good note to end on:

Smiling. That is my only wish.