Will I Know I'm Dying?

Question: Is it possible to recognize the signs of approaching death in the months before a person who has no apparent illness dies. Can you look back after a death and see that yes, they were dying and no one knew it?

That is an interesting question. There are so many variables, as each death has its own individuality, that there is no one answer to this question. However, here are some ideas to consider: first a bit of information: there are just two ways to die, fast or gradual. Fast being accidents, heart attack, blood clots, whatever causes death to be instantaneous. Gradual death being old age or disease. Gradual death has a process. It doesn’t just happen so there are signs to look for that point to the process and the progress.

Here are some variables to approaching death: some people, who appear healthy with no evidence of disease, begin the dying process and go through the stages of dying without ever being diagnosed with a life threatening disease. They die and everyone is surprised. If you had asked them "are you sick", some might have said yes, others may have said no. Some may just have been in denial while others may have known how serious it was and just chose to do nothing.

In situations like these in hindsight we can see that indeed the person did show signs of approaching death months before actual death occurred. Eating decreased, sleeping increased; they withdrew from those around them. That would tell us the body had a disease long before it was ever, if ever, diagnosed.

Another possibility is a person is healthy and well, gets an illness and even though they aren’t “suppose" to die from the illness, they do. In that case they probably have not entered the dying process before actual death occurs. This would be considered a fast death.

While individual differences may be seen in the time of months, weeks, and days before death, everyone who is dying will have the signs of approaching death that occur hours to minutes before death. Even a person dying a fast death will show the signs of hours to minutes before death. In the last moments of life we all die similarly.

In our personal situations we may never have an answer to the question did he know or had the process started months earlier. What I suspect is that at some time before we die we know that the moment has come. That knowledge may become real to us weeks, days, hours, or minutes before death. What ever the time frame there is a moment when without a doubt we know –this is what dying is like....I am dying.

Something More About... Will I Know I'm Dying?

My booklet, Gone From My Sight, is a guideline to what approaching death looks like. Typically the signs are seen six months before a person dies. The book details what to look for and what will happen from six months to hours and minutes before death. It is an invaluable guideline for families with a loved one in hospice, palliative care, or has been told that they have an illness that is unfixable.

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3 comments

Barbara

Hi Don, thanks for sharing the wonderful story of your mother’s final days. She certainly did a good job of leaving her body—affairs in order, said her goodbyes and gently left. That is a good role model for all of us.
My blessings to you and your family. Barbara

Don Eisenberg

Since you all deal with serious stuff all the time, I though you might like to hear some levity.
My Mother, at age 90, suffered two heart attacks (we planned her memorial service by her request and with her participation after the first, and actually had the service- singing and all in her hospital room after the second), then went through extended rehab (I told her she had to earn her way back to her apartment!). She returned to her retirement center home on a Thursday. Early Friday morning, she called me (she was in GA, I in LA), and said, “I think I’ll be leaving today.” I said, “where are you going?” She replied, “I mean dying.” I asked, “how do you know?” She said emphatically, “I don’t feel like eating!” (Her famous quite was, "I always feel so good when I eat! We held that truth to be self-evident). I said, “don’t go anywhere, I’ll be right there!” I drive thru the night, arriving at 2am in a guest room. A few hours later, I went to her apartment and she was doing fine, talking, going about her business. Turns out she was up making herself breakfast at 2am! I asked, "so how did it go for D-day (Departure Day)? She said, “I didn’t get too far!” We enjoyed the weekend with her, arrange for some extra help, and everything seeming in order, I gave her a hug and kiss and drove off to Baton Rouge. An hour later, my sister (who was with her) called me and said, “she’s not responsive!” The diner had left the restaurant! So, no overt signs that the end was imminent (or I wouldn’t have left), but she sensed it somehow. In retrospect, it was a textbook “liftoff!” She had bid her adieus to all the family, she had heard (most of) what we were going to say about her at her memorial celebration, she worked her way back to her retirement apartment home, and she got her Last Breakfast- what more could a person ask for?

Here’s thanking you again for all that you do to help people to prepare for the inevitable. You have such a wonderful range of resources! One thing I wonder about, and don’t know if you address it (or even want to ) in some of your publications- final planning. Almost 2/3 of people who die in the U.S. die without a Will. That makes settling financial and material affairs much more difficult after they die. If, as families are wrestling with the other difficult aspects of death, they could (if practical) make some headway in formalizing those legal documents, that would make a huge difference later. Just a thought.

Thanks again- keep up the great work!

Don

Joanne Sankowski

With many deaths in my immediate family and me getting older I seem to want to more about death than I ever did. I have your book gone from my sight. My brother died in July of cancer and your book held true to how the end came.

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