Do You Want to Be Awake For Your Death?

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 hello@theatlantic.com 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: