The Passing: What to Expect When Witnessing a Loved One's Death

Relatives describe the death experience

By , Caring.com senior editor
99% helpful

Nothing prepares you for being present at the death of a loved one. The emotional enormity of the experience and its relative rarity give survivors little frame of reference to draw from.

"The time of life we call dying is an extremely difficult part of the life cycle, but a normal part," says palliative-care physician Ira Byock, author of Dying Well. "The nature of it isn't medical, it's experiential."

The death experience unfolds differently in each situation. But those who have witnessed "the passing" observe the following:

The dying person may talk to people not in the room, or may see other places.

"A few hours before she died, my mother suddenly said, 'No, I'm not Sarah [her mother's name],' but she didn't say it to any of us in the room. Then she was telling Dad she loved him. It was like she was having two conversations at once. One of the last coherent things that she said was, 'Are you the gentleman who's come to meet me?'" -- Michele, a North Carolina mother of four

Dying people often seem to be in two worlds at once: here and not here. They may talk to or gesture toward people who aren't visible to others in the room. Or they may describe things or places they see, such as a garden, a favorite location, or lights.

These "deathbed visions," as British neuropsychiatrist Peter Fenwick, a specialist in near-death experiences, calls them, almost always take place when the person is clearly conscious -- even though witnesses sometimes mistake the visions and speech for signs of delirium. Some dying people switch easily between conversations with those at the bedside and with someone unseen. The people and places are usually connected with feelings of peace and security. In the U.S. and the U.K., nearly three-fourths of visions are of friends and relatives who aren't living, says Fenwick, author of The Art of Dying. About 13 percent of people seen are religious figures, compared to 50 percent of people in India who see Hindu figures. Seeing strangers is relatively rare.