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

Readers share their experiences


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:

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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 neuropsychiatrist and 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.

Dying may seem to involve great physical effort.

"My mom had a dry mouth and scary raspy breath that worsened over a few days. But she didn't die until the day we gave her morphine. I felt responsible, wondering if we had rushed things." -- Emma, a 45-year-old artist in San Francisco.

"Some go gently -- you look up and their chest is no longer moving," palliative-care physician Byock says. "But for others it's hard to die. It's like an animal shedding its skin, a physical struggle to wriggle out of this life."

Younger people and those who are healthy aside from a single fatal illness often have the most difficult time. But dying can be effortful for anyone. Palliative care -- comfort care including pain relief -- improves quality of life to life's end. Unfortunately, say hospice workers, families are often reluctant to use painkillers out of a misguided fear that they curb awareness or hasten the death process.

Morphine dosages given in hospice are only enough to ease pain, Byock says. Even with good comfort care, certain reflexive symptoms of the dying process, such as labored breathing, can still appear as distress. Mental confusion is another common effect of the organs -- in this case, the brain -- shutting down. (See 10 Signs Death is Near).

The personality of the dying person usually stays consistent to the end.

"My mother never lost her sense of humor. I was complaining about my brother not coming to my daughter's birthday party. 'So shoot him!' she said in her typically droll way. My mother's last words to me were instructions to kill my brother!" -- Dawn Barclay, a New York manager in her 40s, who saw her mom through 18 months of complications of heart surgery and stroke

People tend to die as they lived, says Maggie Callanan, a hospice nurse and the author of Final Gifts, who has witnessed more than 2,000 deaths. "Nice people get even nicer, manipulators manipulate, funny people die funny," she explains. "We all have ways of navigating through life, and when dying, those tendencies are intensified by 10."

More things you may witness at a loved one's death

The dying person may speak in metaphors.

"On the day she died, my mom kept talking about traveling, like, 'Let's go, what are we waiting for . . . oh, there's a plane ahead of us . . . no, that's not the right plane.' She also told my dad that he should take a later flight. She was definitely going someplace." -- Patricia Anderson, 45-year-old Ohio insurance account executive

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"The dying often use symbolic language, especially to indicate an imminent change or a need to go forth -- to die," says hospice nurse Callanan. Travel is one of the more common themes, such as talking about modes of transportation or about going somewhere (making a flight, a golfer talking about going golfing).

The person may also allude to "making ready" (packing, making checklists, issuing directions). Some observers think that this talk of journey-making is a subconscious way dying people let family members know they know they're passing away. It's a signal for families to offer reassurance -- that they, too, understand what's happening and to convey that although they're grieving, they'll look after one another and be all right.

"The family's reassurances that they'll be all right often bring the peace a dying person needs," Callanan says.

More things you may witness at a loved one's death

The dying person may seem to choose the final moment.

"The hospice people had told me that sometimes people won't die when their loved ones are in the room, especially if the person has played a protective role in their lives. Or that they hang on if they feel you can't let them go. So before I stepped out to get something to eat, I told my Dad that if he had to go it was OK, that he had done everything he could to raise us and we could raise ourselves now. Not seven minutes later, a nurse met me in the hall and said he was gone. I guess I felt a bit cheated because I wanted to witness this crossing over." -- Lise Funderburg, Philadelphia writer

Many people report feeling "cheated" or as if they "let down" a loved one by not being there at the moment of death. Others blame themselves as "failures" for inadvertently allowing the person they love to die alone. In many cases the survivor had stayed glued to the bedside for hours, determined to be there, turning away or stepping out for only an instant.

But those who work in hospice think it's the other way around: Passing away often happens minutes after loved ones leave the bedside, as if the dying person is choosing to spare them the final moment. This is especially true, they say, with individuals toward whom the dying person feels protective.

Also common: The dying person seems to hang on to wait for someone to visit or something to be said. One South Carolina woman's mother lingered in hospice for months until she received the news that her also-ill, adored younger sister had died. She died herself the next morning. "It was as if she wanted to spare her sister her own news," her daughter said.

More things you may witness at a loved one's death

The dying person often seems peaceful at the end.

"She opened her eyes, and the house grew quiet. Her face softened and all the wrinkles and tension went away. Later the hospice nurse recommended that I not watch them take the body out because it had stiffened, and I appreciated that because now I can remember the relaxed mother I saw last." -- Aoife, a designer from Northern California

Especially when the route has been long and marked by physical struggle, many people observe that the moments around death itself are calm. "So many people I talk to about dying tell me they wish they could die in their sleep. I'd estimate 95 percent of people dying naturally from illness go into brief coma -- like a profound sleep state -- before they die," hospice nurse Callanan says. "So the good news is that most of us do die in our sleep."

Jo Reichel, a teacher in Michigan, sat watching the Olympics with her father the morning he died after a summer full of repeat hospitalizations. "I was sitting on the floor next to his chair and kept looking between the TV and him. At 6:30 he was alive, and by 6:32, he'd simply stopped breathing. At first I wasn't even sure I should wake my sisters to tell them, because he looked so relaxed."

For Frances, an Ohio accountant, the moments after death were unreal but not frightening. "I'd never been in the room with a dead person before. But I had a strong sense that body wasn't my father any more. It felt like he had up and left the room; it was terribly sad but also strangely peaceful."

More things you may witness at a loved one's death

Witnessing a death is often transformative and brings survivors close.

"Seeing a person you love dying taps into the best parts of your nature." -- Lise Funderburg

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Before experiencing the death of a loved one, many people view the prospect with dread. Afterward, they often look back on their death-witnessing experience as having been a horrible, grief-stricken time that nevertheless brought certain gifts. Among these: new insights into their own capacity for selfless love and caring, renewed or intensified bonds with other family members, a new respect for siblings or medical staffers, a healing of old wounds.

"The situation asked for grace, patience, and charity, so something I actually benefited from was to see I had a fairly deep capacity for those things that hadn't been called on in the same way before," says Funderberg, who wrote about her father's long final illness in Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home. "Someone dying is a great prioritizer. What does something like the resentment you were holding onto matter now?"

To be sure, the passing away of a loved one can be almost unendurable. That in the end it is endurable seems to be both its blessing and its curse.


5 days ago, said...

Just went to visit a friend today who is under hospice care at his home. I didn't know what to expect but he really wasn't coherent. He seemed to be saying something almost in a crying tone to himself while having his eyes shut. I let him know I was in the room and he opened his eyes and then went back to the state he was in when I got there. This definitely will stick in my memory forever.


14 days ago, said...

I am now watching the man i call paw slip away i have seen him in pain beyond what i could imagine but he is none the my bestfriend and i am now watching him leav us behind hospice says. Any time now


19 days ago, said...

I'm praying for you Karen. Your post grabbed my attention. Have a wonderful journey.


24 days ago, said...

My dad is 92. He lives with me and I am his primary care giver. He is currently under the care of hospice due to advanced dementia. He is displaying just about all of these signs that death is near, however, he keeps hanging on. He appears to be having seizures pretty much weekly. He will slump over with eyes glazed over, totally unresponsive and with labored breathing. My question is, are these seizures really him actively dying, only to pull back when I come to his side? Could he be trying to spare me from witnessing his passing?


about 1 month ago, said...

Hi, I really appreciate these comments of your experiences. The trouble is we have had so many near death experiences with my MIL that it is so difficult to understand how we will ever know. She exhibits many of the 10 symptoms described but seems to rally. She is obviously getting nearer to death but whereas we thought it was hours/days it is more like weeks/ months but who knows! I have been caring for her for over 8 1/2 years now ( she is in a home) and it is taking its toll emotionally and physically. After all of this time I so want to be with her at the end. That said, since reading these posts I realise that it is all right to step out of the room if death appears near in order to give them the opportunity to die alone if they so wish! Up until now I was worried about her being alone and lonely at the time of passing on.


about 1 month ago, said...

Hi, I watched my Father -in-law pass away last week and I am still struggling with what I saw, heard and experienced. .. My father -in-law suffered with an aggressive form of Parkinson for 8 years in which time it held him hostage in his own body. He had a tracheostomy and a G/J tube for 5 years. I would help care for him and on the day he passed, I had noticed his skin looked like wax and his hands were cold, he looked like he was having breathing problems so I gave him 10mg of Morphine but it did not do much. His oxygen was down too 66 and there was alot of phlegm that I had to suction out. I spoke softly to him letting him know it was ok to go when he was ready and about a half hour after that his eyes opened wide and he stopped breathing. ..His eyes were hardly ever open but now they were and it was hard to close them... I did not expect my Father -in-law to pass that day, a day mixed with sadness but happiness that he is free of that horrible disease that took him from us way to early.


2 months ago, said...

Is anyone else having trouble reading these comments? They seem to be cut off mid-sentence with no "more" option.


2 months ago, said...

I responded a bit ago. I am in Phoenix, AZ and have terminal lung cancer. I am not in hospice nor do I have doctors. Therefore, I am unattended. I am going old school in terms of taking care of myself and experiencing this journey. I am experiencing a lot of what it says in the articles 10 Signs Death Is Near and The Passing. Some of what is happening. frightens me and makes me feel restless, and some of it is very reassuring and brings me comfort. I know I will be leaving pretty soon and going somewhere wonderful with my mate and that we will be at peace.


2 months ago, said...

I have terminal lung cancer and needed reliable information to help me with my leaving process. These articles were very helpful. They will also help my roommate and minister Julie to know what to do and what to expect.


3 months ago, said...

My father just passed on July 6th. When I walked in the room the day he died, my dad was already gone mentally and had almost no reaction to stimuli. His eyes were wide open and dark and brown. It was very upsetting to see my dad like this. It was extremely hard to watch my dad's final hours and what cancer had done to this poor man.


3 months ago, said...

My Father passed only a few days ago. My sister, step mom and I were caring for him his last couple of days. I've seen many people die as I work in healthcare. This however, I've never experienced. My Dad had been sleeping more in the final few hours. My sister stepped out to answer a call from a sibling. I tended to something on the stove. My step mom called me into the room. There was my Dad, head lifted forward, eyes fixated downward, bigger than I'd ever seen, with a horrified look. He then turned red/purple with veins popping in his head. He made a growl sound, relaxed, did it again smaller with his right hand popping up in a claw position, then a smaller tightening then passed with his eyes closed. It was horrific to watch. I'm hoping he was already gone when it all began. It breaks my heart he may have been that frightened.


3 months ago, said...

yes my husband passed two months ago i found him in the hospital bed is mouth was extremely open head back and eyes bulging i have been with many people who have passed and none of them looked like he did i ave night mares of this can you help me with an explanation he was alone. he had copd


4 months ago, said...

My mother died in Nov. 2014 of complications due to ovarian cancer. Ater moving from the hospital to a nursing home (less than 5 min. from my home), she first was optomistic about receiving PT, in order to move home with me, to live out her last few months. After about 6 weeks she began to seriously decline. It started with her receiving Ativan (I think), which she was offered to reduce her stress about seeing a new doctor, who was going to assess her ability to come home. After taking the pill around 2pm, at 2am I received a call from the nurse. My mom was insisting to talk with me and when I got on the phone with her she was not herself - not at all. She sounded completely panicked and like a totally different person. She was insistant that I come get her, sayint that the nursing home was a death factory and that she was fine, but needed to be taken home immediately. I rushed to her side, but she continued to be unsoothable and frenetic. I did not want to give her more drugs, but she was in danger of harming herself, so I agreed, sobbing, and walking away, to try to figue out what to do. I stayed with her all night and although she continued to be agitated, she eventually slept a bit. Two days later, she was extremely uncomfortable and unsoothable - and agitated. I knew she was near death, but really wanted to find a way to bring her home. I called Hospice, since the nursing home was unable to help me in any way. The hospice worker suggested putting her on a fentynal patch, since she was throwing up and unable to keep the (huge liquid doses of blue morphine) down. [I later found that she could have received less liquid, more intense morphine]. The Hospice worker suggested 10mg. per hour of morphine while the fentynal patch took over. I had been with her for 36 hours and decided to leave because NO ONE told me that she was at the end. Absolutely no one suggested that she was near death. At 7:30am the next morning I received a call that she was experiencing shortness of breath and that I should come to the nursing home. When I arrived, the nurse asst. said that they were cleaning her up. He had no idea hat I was expecting her to be alive and was SHOCKED that she had died. Not only did I NOT get a call to let me know that she was close to death, but they only gave me an hour or so with her before they required her body to be removed. I will never forgive myself for not knowing more about how this process works. My mom is still the most important person to me in the entire world. This process, and not being told how / why things were happening, and ultimately, not being with my mom when she died, will cause me grief until I also die alone -- unless something changes.


5 months ago, said...

My mother died in Feb. 2013.. She was 85. I was her caregiver with the help of Hospice. She announced that her death was near and talked to all of her loved ones and friends over the phone. She told us that she was going to a better place . Hospice helped me to care for her at home. She was conscious right up until about ten hours before she died. I saw all of the outward signs that were mentioned in the article and it made me determined that she was not going to die without me at her bedside. I played her favorite hymns throughout the night and held her hand. When her breathing got more labored and shallow, I told her that it was ok for her to release herself from her body. About thirty minutes later, she suddenly sat straight up in bed and stared intently toward the corner of the room. She appeared to be looking at something for about a minute, then she laid her head back upon her pillow and I could see a peaceful look on her face. I am so thankful that I was able to take care of her during her final days. I would encourage those who are facing the death of a loved one to consider Hospice care. I was blessed to be able to care for Mom at home, but for those who can' t do so, Hospice centers are available and help the patient as well as the family during their loved one.s final journey. A grateful son.