the undiscovered country
November 30, 2007 6:46 PM   Subscribe

If you've been dead (or know someone who has), and were conscious while it happened: what does it feel like to die?

Imagining the moments just before my death has always been sort of an unhealthy obsession with me. I'm aware that this skims the murky waters of chatfilter, but I'm hoping the specificity of the question is enough. I want to know, as best those who have experienced it can tell me, what the physical sensation of dying is like.
posted by BackwardsCity to Religion & Philosophy (29 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
An ex-girlfriend of mine was clinically dead for a while after a drug overdose. She refused to talk about it except to say that it was "very, very cold".
posted by cmonkey at 6:54 PM on November 30, 2007

here's the google search on this.. (not to say that you haven't already thought of this, but, just in case)

I'll be interested in any mefits have experienced this....
posted by HuronBob at 6:55 PM on November 30, 2007

Yahoo answers already covered this, but unfortunately most people on that site are idiots.

Part of the problem of asking what death feels like is that by definition death is the lack of any sort of feeling at all. When someone is very close to death, most of the systems of the body fail, including the systems that give accurate information about what things feel like. Asking what being dead feels like is roughly equivalent to asking what being blind looks like.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:10 PM on November 30, 2007

Response by poster: Just to clarify, I'm interested in what it feels like to die, not what it feels like to be dead. You're right that death is the absence of all sensation—I'm looking for stories about what the transition into that state is like.
posted by BackwardsCity at 7:21 PM on November 30, 2007

Ah! I knew this had been asked before. Took me a while to find it. It was an interesting thread.
posted by MsMolly at 7:26 PM on November 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I looked at that thread before I posted. It's not quite what I have in mind either, because thinking you're about to die isn't the same as actually dying. I'm really interested, as close as anyone can take me, in the sensation of actual, physical death.
posted by BackwardsCity at 7:31 PM on November 30, 2007

Response by poster: Actually, going further down in the thread MsMolly linked to, some of those are pretty helpful...
posted by BackwardsCity at 7:34 PM on November 30, 2007

Here's my contrarion view: no one can answer this question because no one has every been dead (and able to answer questions). Death is what happens when you irrevocably stop. If you come back, then you weren't dead to begin with.

Physicians define death as a state your body goes into when it SEEMS to be stopped, from which they think it's impossible to revive you. But if you managed to revive anyway, that just means they were wrong.

Given this, I'm not sure how your question differs from "what's it like to fall asleep?" or "what's it like to lose consciousness?" or "what's it like to dream?"

What's it REALLY like to be dead? It's like nothing. One of the things that happens when you die is that your brain stops functioning. Since it stops functioning, you can't experience anything. There's no you TO experience anything.
posted by grumblebee at 8:21 PM on November 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was "dead" for a period of time after being the victim of a shelling. I remember a bright light and feeling of calm. There was no "going toward" the light or anything like that. It was more like everything in my mental field of vision was "blank" and the light was sort of above me - but it wasn't a distinct light, just a brighter area of light - sort of like being in the middle of a bright cloud. The whole seems relaxing in retrospect, but aside from being unconscious, I was most definitely in shock from the trauma. And since I am writing this today, on some level I wasn't dead - maybe that's just what comas are like. Bear in mind also that I was considered beyond saving - massive bleeding from shrapnel wounds, so this loss of blood could have been it too, in the way that people feel very "light" when they bleed a lot or give a large amount of blood.

We'll all know for sure what it's like, someday.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:39 PM on November 30, 2007 [3 favorites]

Check out Orwell's account of dying and these
tidbits I found while looking for Orwell's essay.
posted by ASM at 9:03 PM on November 30, 2007

I'm with grumblebee. You have two different kinds of people talking about death using different definitions.

Some medical people say you're dead when everything obviously mechanical stops moving. Heart and lungs stop, and they'll say you're dead, regardless of what your thinker is doing.

Next, is the conventional meaning of "death", and from that, no one recovers (AFAIK).

I know I'm not answering your question in any meaningful way. I'm only trying to point out that definitions matter to what meaning you're aiming for.
posted by cmiller at 9:16 PM on November 30, 2007

Honestly, it's fucked up and terrifying.
posted by 31d1 at 9:24 PM on November 30, 2007

Response by poster: Given this, I'm not sure how your question differs from "what's it like to fall asleep?" or "what's it like to lose consciousness?" or "what's it like to dream?"

Maybe I'm peculiar, but I feel as though the difference between falling asleep (on the one hand) and knowingly losing consciousness as your body dies (on the other) is pretty self-evident.

I guess it could be that the experience of total brain-death of the sort no one comes back from is somehow different in essence from extreme bodily trauma as described by Dee Xtrovert above. But I don't see any reason for us to assume off the bat that the experience of Final, For-Reals Death is radically different from They-Sure-Thought-I-Was-A-Goner! Death. In any event, the face of the impossibility of hearing first-hand accounts of For Reals death, I'll have to settle for hearing about the other.
posted by BackwardsCity at 9:41 PM on November 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Are there really medical people around who talk about a person whose heart and lungs have stopped as being "dead"? (And I don't mean on TV.) I've spent a lot of time in ED's and I've never heard anyone use that term -- you might talk about how long someone has been "down" (pulseless and not breathing), and if they've been down for a while, chances are they're probably dead, but it's not like they can be dead for a while and then suddenly be not dead anymore.

What people are discussing doesn't strike me as death. A person who's pulseless and not breathing is pulseless and not breathing. They may also be dead, but if they recover (due to CPR, IV fluids, meds, whatever) then they obviously weren't actually dead. They were just pulseless and not breathing. Death is an irreversible state.

It's like drowning or electrocution. You can't survive either, because by definition drowning and electrocution both kill you. (If you fall in a lake and inhale a lot of water but don't die, that's "near drowning.")

I have been both without a pulse and not breathing at one point, but I would not describe that state as being "dead." Short of magic, you don't get un-dead, and there wasn't any voodoo involved in my resuscitation, nor am I posting via an Ouija board, cool as that would be.

The whole "clinical death" business seems like a historical term with little medical merit, aside from sounding cool, left over from the days when anyone who was pulseless and not breathing really was, for all intents and purposes, dead and beyond the hope of recovery. There's nothing IMO special about losing consciousness from cardiac arrest that makes it spectacularly different from LoC as a result of, say, loss of blood flow to the brain, or electrolyte imbalance (the only other two ways I've ever lost consciousness). Actually, on the whole, I'd say that going down from electrolytes is cooler, but that's just because in my experience it was slower and I had a lot more time to realize what was going on.

I don't really put much credence to 'near death' experiences, because except in certain rare circumstances, by the time you start to get really close to actual, irreversible death, you're almost always unconscious. Except for perhaps knowing that this time, you're not going to wake up, I'm not sure why the actual 'going unconscious' process would be much different.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:57 PM on November 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I didn't die but I came close during a heart attack. My experience: I felt my energy/ability to do respond/communicate decrease, and I consciously decided to husband my strength, doing/responding only what was absolutely necessary.

Basically, you can experience after you do not have the strength to respond. I'm told I briefly (for seconds) lost consciousness, but subjectively I do not recall that. What I do recall is that by external input "narrowed" (vision particularly), and that at a certain point while I still comprehended what was going on, (oh my god, I'm getting weak, I can't move, oh shit I'm dying here!), but I didn't have the strength to communicate by voice or gesture.

Essentially, I think you die alone no matter who is with you: after a certain point, you still experience what's happening, but you can't do anything or communicate by any modality. You fade, but you still know you're fading, and it's scary as hell.

And, yes, as the first answer points out, you're cold. very cold. (I was able to communicate that ("cold", no strength to provide a subject to the sentence), and got some microwave blankets, and my god, those were good. Really, really good. I mean, just so warm.

That's what you're reduced to: you notice all the details of pipes and ducts on the ER ceiling, you know you're in a lot of pain, fading fast, but you can't communicate even to say, "yes, it's OK, jam that triple lumen in, doc, give me the heparin, I trust you know what you're doing, and please do something, please do it now, please quickly. Please, I'd ask, but I don't have the strength to move my vocal cords. Please, I'm cold".

And it's so scary, and you know you're cognizant of the whole dying process even as you are unable to say or do anything, and you can't communicate, not even a shrug that's too much work, your body is no longer under the control of your mind, but your mind still is aware, and you're dying surrounded by an the docs and interns and nurses and students of an ER team, and you're dying alone since you're just inarticulate meat in their hands because you can't communicate anything and your fate is all up to what they decide to do or not do and you're there but you're not an actor, you're not involved in your own dying you're just fading away, more-or-less aware but unable to do anything.

It's scary, but you have a real sense of resignation. what happens is observed by you, but you can't affect it. What happens is up to them in the ER, not to you. Maybe you'll live, maybe you'll keep fading. You just get to watch, a disconnected fatalistic observer (yes, your mind is fatalistic and even unconcerned even as your body is in fear), as you feel your strength ebb, as your vision narrows, as you get colder and colder and feel yourself receding further "away" from all the ER workers, even as they touch and cut and invade your body.
posted by orthogonality at 12:39 AM on December 1, 2007 [34 favorites]

A link from a friend that I found particularly interesting. Not sure if this would answer your question, but i guess it's something to consider.
posted by mittenedsex at 12:41 AM on December 1, 2007

And my god I don't want to be there again. Please, I want a slow death that gives me time to prepare, nothing sudden, nothing that involves knowing I'm dying and being unable to do anything about it. Please, at least something slow and measured so I can make a few goodbyes. But I know even something slow will end with me knowing and yet unable to communicate, that there will be a point were I'm still cognizant but trapped inside my own head; I know I'll die alone unable to reach out. Ultimately, we all die alone, and you're so alone because you can't tell anyone, you can't at the very end say goodbye or even say you're there at all and yet you're there, trapped at the end of that narrow tunnel and not even able to wave goodbye.
posted by orthogonality at 12:57 AM on December 1, 2007 [2 favorites]

Mary Roach wrote a very fascinating book called Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which touches on this a bit. Take a look and see if this answers some of your inquiries, and sparks a few new ones.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:25 AM on December 1, 2007

I think it depends to a great extent, on the amount of trauma associated with death, and whether the brain remains in a cohesive state through the death. I watched a guy riding a motorcycle in front of me hit a deer he couldn't have seen bounding from the edge of the road, fly over his handlebars, into an oncoming semi-truck, where the net impact speed was in excess of 140 MPH. He wasn't wearing a helmet, so there wasn't anything you could call a head left on what could be distinguished of his remains. I don't think, from his perspective, that in the .2 of a second he lived between striking the deer, and ceasing to have a head, that anything could have registered. I think if you were vaporized in an atomic bomb blast, or crushed at depth in a bathyscaphe implosion, your demise would be equally and instantly transformative, and beyond experience.
posted by paulsc at 1:31 AM on December 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Are there really medical people around who talk about a person whose heart and lungs have stopped as being "dead"?

I've heard it several times, though most of them were from (U.S.) R.N.s (nurses) or paramedics and only a few from M.D.s (doctors). Instead of it being universal, there could be a confirmation bias here, I admit.

(Yes, I know a lot of those types. My mother and my wife are nurses, and so about half of the people I hang around are in the medical profession. Gods, that's a gleefully morbid bunch.)
posted by cmiller at 4:21 AM on December 1, 2007

Best answer: I had a near-drowning experience in my teens and it was very close to what Dee Xtrovert describes. Very very close. I do remember the light surrounding me and a sensation of - here are words that apply: love / brotherhood / camaraderie / relationship - also surrounding me. And a brighter light somewhere in the distance above me and a movement toward that light or it toward me.

My own take on this is that hypoxia / metabolic buildup in the brain rapidly produces these sensations and this state of mind.

It was pretty peaceful, really, after I stopped struggling for air. A happy memory, strangely.
posted by pammo at 4:29 AM on December 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

I died (or, at least, came very very close) in my sleep many years ago. I was very confused until I saw the bright light. As I moved closer to it I was overcome by the most incredible feeling of peace, bliss, joy, love...all the good things. I'd never felt so...good.
Then it hit me...I'm dead! With that realization, I fell away from the light. I finally awoke, with my wife frantically shaking my body and yelling my name.

To this day, I feel cheated. There has never been anything that felt so perfect and wonderful as that moment.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:26 AM on December 1, 2007

There was a fascinating article in The New Scientist last month about what if feels like to die, which is based on a lot of research and the author's interviews with many scientists, MDs, and people who "died."
posted by HotPatatta at 10:21 AM on December 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

In addition to her book on medical cadavers, Mary Roach has also written a book on the after life. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

It's quite a good read. And while I haven't died, some of the first hand accounts she looks into are very similar to what we've heard in the thread.
posted by teleri025 at 12:13 PM on December 1, 2007

I have only speculation to offer, but I think a big part of it may depend on what you consider the actual experience. Do you mean the actual events that lead up to the cessation of function, or immediately afterward? I (anyone for that matter) can only suspect that immediately afterward is a complete lack of record-taking mechanism to even recall from. It's as if you have a tape recorder recording all the audio in a room, and asking to replay the tape from after the recorder was blown to pieces. For one, no data was stored, and for two, there's no tape anymore.

I think the thing most people worry about are the few moments leading up to death, and I think that largely depends on the cause of death. I can't imagine many of the deaths in Black Hawk Down to be especially pleasant, as opposed to dying in your sleep (although that's not necessarily a provable circumstance, except while under watch of an EEG perhaps) because only otherwise could the deceased be able to say whether or not he/she actually woke up just prior.

I have long suspected a comparison might be drawn in some sense to an coughing fit, in that your awareness suddenly shifts from a perception of the environment to a exclusive "self diagnostic" (pardon the Trek reference), where your focus is entirely on self and attempting to correct whatever obstacle blocks your very ability to continue proper function. At some point in a coughing fit there is still a social awareness about how much of a dork you look like, but if the intensity increases there comes a point at which there are zero other perceptions than focusing on dislodging whatever is causing the coughing, well past the ability to remain standing. Similarly, achieving orgasm also has this effect, whereas prior the environment is very present but at the crucial moment nothing else exists and the world is near-completely blocked out except for the task at hand (as it were). I have long suspected the moment of dying is akin to this change in focus, the "life flashing before one's eyes" phenomenon as perhaps a pegged mind-search for a possible solution to resolve the dilemma from all reaches of the brain but only coming up with irrelevant feelings.
posted by vanoakenfold at 1:49 PM on December 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

A friend had cardiac problems, and his cardiologist (an electrician, not a plumber) sort of lost his temper, jammed a thumb into his carotid and killed him, for diagnostic purposes. He was pulseless for about 10 seconds. All he was able to report was that he went black instantly. There was no transition. It was a while before he came back, but he had no memories of being gone.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 7:05 PM on December 1, 2007

George Saunders wrote a sublimely beautiful short story about this very topic [sort of] called CommComm that has a passage near the end that moved me to tears. Reading some of these responses brought it back to mind. I know it's sort of off-topic, but if you have a chance to read to the very end you may come away with something useful.
posted by docpops at 9:59 PM on December 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Once upon a time, 32 years ago, I died in a plane crash. It was very sudden, but I saw it coming. The plane had just taken off. It banked right, but lost altitude, slamming into the face of a cliff.

I saw the cliff, saw we were going to hit it. The crash seemed like darkness, running at me very fast, from the front of the plane. Almost instantly I was in that darkness, dead, and I knew it.

What I felt was the most wonderful release of all cares and worries I ever experienced. All that troublesome rot was behind me, forever. Bliss!

Then I woke up to discover it was only a dream. The truth hurt. I felt terribly cheated. Life sucked at the time, in a very major way. I was a homeless teenager in Portland, Oregon. 1975. Death seemed a superior place to be.
posted by Goofyy at 5:30 AM on December 3, 2007

You might want to check out A Fundamental Experiment, by Rene Daumal, in which he writes about his repeated use of toxic chemicals for the express purpose of experiencing the brink of death.
posted by newmoistness at 9:25 AM on December 4, 2007

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