Reporter's Notebook

Discussing the Moment of Death
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Readers share stories of their loved one’s demise and wonder about the best way for themselves to go. If you’d like to join the discussion, drop us a note at

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Going Out With a Bang

Some of our readers would prefer a more exciting exit from this Earth than slipping away in your sleep. One points to the Star Trek clip seen above: “It’s a bit dramatic, but I’ve lead such a low-key life that this kind of going out fireworks would be grand.” Another reader:

I want to die in an explosion during an alien invasion where I’m protecting my wife and daughter. I’m killing a lot of aliens, but there are too many and I need to detonate a bomb in order to protect them. My wife gives me a kiss and my daughter is crying and they flee. Then I arm the bomb, wait for the aliens to surround me and say “Let’s have a bomb”—dying in a blaze of glory and live on in history books.

Another replies, “Same, but SKELETONS instead of aliens and I’d be protecting 35,000 cats.” Update from reader Doug:

The reader who wrote about going out in an alien-massacring blaze of glory seems like they just saw Independence Day recently. He combines the elements of Russell (says goodbye to kids and sacrifices himself) and Steve and David (allow the aliens to surround them and deliver cheesy line before escaping … and delivering more cheesy lines)—which, all in all, would be a pretty good way to go out.

Another reader quotes a classic line from Will Rogers: “I want to go peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather—not screaming in terror, like the passengers in his car.” This reader looks to literature:

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:

Jennie Dear has an evocative piece for us examining the scant evidence that scientists have so far about the mysterious threshold between life and death—what the body goes through and how a person subjectively feels it, both in terms of pain and hallucinations:

“A lot of cardiac-arrest survivors describe that during their unconscious period, they have this amazing experience in their brain,” [neuroscientist Jimo Borjigin] says. “They see lights and then they describe the experience as ‘realer than real.’” She realized the sudden release of neurochemicals might help to explain this feeling. … Most of the patients interviewed [for a study at a hospice center], 88 percent, had at least one dream or vision.

One reader says of Dear’s ostensibly morbid piece (“What It Feels Like to Die”): “The article is comforting in a way I did not anticipate.” Another reader agrees:

I kissed my dad goodbye on the forehead right before he died. He smiled briefly. So, this article was some comfort in maybe explaining that smile of his.

This next reader also lost her father:

I remember when my dad was dying, and my mom forbade any of us from telling him that he was dying. I thought that that was terribly selfish on her part, and I told my husband that if I were dying I would want to know.

When my mom passed away, she was “treated” to the experience of my sisters bitterly arguing as to who was the favorite. (I knew I wasn’t and just held her hand.) My husband got my sisters to stop. Finally, the doctors came in and actually said she had permission to die ... Mom was like that; you had to have permission in her mind for everything.

My dear husband is gone now, and I just hope that when I go, I’ll be thinking of him.

That reader’s line—“if I were dying I would want to know”—prompted a question in my mind I’ve long answered in the affirmative: “Do you want to be awake for your death and know it’s coming?” The conventional wisdom says most people prefer to die in their sleep, but, as long as there’s no intense pain involved, sleeping seems like a disappointing way to experience one of the most profound parts of life—its ending. And whenever I think of that question, I’m reminded of these lyrics from Björk’s “Hyperballad”:

I imagine what my body would sound like
Slamming against those rocks

And when it lands
Will my eyes be closed or open?

Would you rather be sleep or awake? How exactly would you prefer to die? What’s the ideal situation? Email if you’d like to share.

Back to a few more stories from readers regarding the death of a loved one. This memory is particularly poignant: