Do you feel anxious thinking about death and dying? Wonder what you will need or want during the dying process? Think who will grieve when you die?
Whether you are confronting the end of your own life or the loss of a loved one, death is a certainty of life that everyone will face. Even so, knowing that it’s inevitable doesn’t mean you’ll feel prepared for dealing with death and the grief that follows.
A paradox of living is that healthy aging and increased longevity mean you’ll have more experiences with death throughout your life.1 As we age, so too do the people around us. Over time, many of the people that we know and care about will develop chronic or terminal illnesses. Some of them will die during our lifetimes.
The consequence of living longer is that we will continue to lose friends and loved ones to accidents, illnesses, and, as we reach our later years, simply “old age.”
While death is a natural part of life and an unavoidable consequence of aging, that doesn’t mean you won’t be deeply affected by it. In fact, the ongoing exposure to death is one reason depression is common in older adults.2
However, knowing that death will eventually touch your life in some way means you can be proactive about learning to cope with the dying and grieving process.
While you may not be able to predict how it will feel to experience grief (for your own life or someone else’s), having a support system in place and the skills necessary to care for your mental health will give you a solid foundation to work from.
Feelings About Death
Some people seem to be inherently more at peace with death; whether premature or at the end of a long life.3 Others find the dying process difficult to face no matter how old they get or how often they experience the death of a loved one.
While your unique personality and experiences influence how you think and feel about death, there are also other factors.
Related: What Happens After Death?
For example, the culture you were raised in, as well as the one you are living in at any given time, will shape your beliefs and perceptions of death.4 The way other people in your life perceive and react to grief will also affect your feelings.
Your perceptions may also change as you have more experiences with death; this may be felt most strongly if and when your own life is threatened, such as by a serious injury or illness.
When we talk about coping with death and dying, there are several components of the process to consider. In addition to the emotional experience, there are also the spiritual or existential elements, as well as physical aspects of death (especially if we are in the position of confronting our own mortality).
Each component of the dying process requires a different set of tools for coping but having the skills you need to approach each facet individually will come together to help you move through your unique experience of grief.
What death looks and feels like in the body will depend on the underlying cause. How long death takes, whether it causes pain or other symptoms, and even the appearance of the body throughout the process will vary.
Sometimes, the physical process of dying is quick and virtually painless—such as in a sudden accident that causes fatal injury. In other cases, such as with cancer, death may be a prolonged process that requires constant care for managing pain.5
While the timeline and experience might be different from one person to the next, the steps in the physiological process of dying are fairly consistent. For death to happen, certain systems in the body need to stop working.
If a person is in a fatal car accident, they may die right away from an injury to vital organs. For example, when if the spine and skull are involved, damage to the brain can cause the person to lose consciousness, cut off blood supply to the body, and interrupt communication between the brain and vital organs.
When someone is dying from a terminal illness, the organ systems of the body will shut down more slowly.6 They gradually become less aware of what’s happening around them and may start sleeping more.
A person who is dying may begin to eat and drink less or stop taking nourishment at all. The closer death is, the more shallow a person’s breathing becomes, sometimes making a distinct “rattling” sound.
Whether it happens gradually or suddenly, the World Health Organization (WHO) states that clinical death occurs when all vital functions of the body (including brain activity, blood flow, and breathing) have stopped.7