The only things certain in life are death and taxes - but what that inevitable fate feels like is not so clear. Many folks tend to skirt around the topic. In fact, most people would rather avoid talking about dying altogether, especially when it concerns close friends, family, or themselves.
Despite the taboo nature of the topic, humanity also has a morbid fascination with the process. People have always contemplated it in one way or another. While it's impossible to know exactly what it feels like to die, stories of near-death experiences and studies conducted by experts can help shed light on this fascinating but morbid subject.
The end is not always immediate, and many might assume that those in hospice may be able to articulate what it feels like in the weeks leading up to their final moments. Unfortunately, even those who are aware of their impending fate aren't able to fully explain the physical sensations associated with it. Often, people with deteriorating health lose consciousness or become too tired to communicate at some point, existing in relative silence.
"Roughly from the last two weeks until the last breath, somewhere in that interval, people become too sick, or too drowsy, or too unconscious, to tell us what they're experiencing," explained Margaret Campbell, a professor of nursing at Wayne State University.
According to Dr. James Hallenbeck, author of Palliative Care Perspectives, if a person is engaged in "active dying" - the rapid deterioration of health that occurs in the last couple days of life - one of the first things they experience is the loss of sensory perception. The senses tend to go in a particular order.
The palliative care specialist noted, "First hunger and then thirst are lost. Speech is lost next, followed by vision. The last senses to go are usually hearing and touch."
As the end of a person's life approaches, the brain focuses its efforts on trying to keep the body alive. In order to do this, the brain cuts off support for what it deems nonessential bodily functions, leaving only the vital organs operating. Blood moves to support the necessary organs, which can leave extremities cold to the touch. The person can become increasingly lethargic and may not even have the energy to move. Other functions the brain doesn't deem critical also go, which can lead to unfiltered speech or incontinence.
David Hovda, director of the UCLA Brain Injury Research Center, said of the process, "The brain does the same thing that the body does in that it starts to sacrifice areas which are less critical to survival."
Since the brain has shut down less-vital functions, the body doesn't need as much oxygen. This factor, combined with the person's lack of energy, leads to a significant change in breathing patterns. Individual breaths are likely to become shorter and shallower. Longer pauses between breaths are also common.
The person might also experience what is known as the death rattle. As the name suggests, this breathing makes a rattling sound in the chest and is due to the fact the body is unable to reabsorb fluids in the chest or throat - a normal function of a healthy person. While this may sound distressing, it, fortunately, does not seem to cause any pain or suffering for the patient.