The Moment of Death

Although most Canadians say they’d like to die at home, more than half of us die in a hospital. Subsequently, it is nurses, particularly those who work in hospice care, who are with the patient, or the patient and their family, when the death occurs. At our recent meeting, we invited Huguette, a retired hospice nurse, to share with us. She wanted to tell us about the moment of death – not in the physical sense as a nurse, but from her experiential perspective as a witness.

Huguette has been at the bedside of many of her patients as they breathed their last. She shared what that was like for her. “When the person gets very near the end, even starts to cross over, something happens in the room. It’s difficult to describe. It’s a felt sense; everyone present is aware of it, it’s palpable, and it’s really very beautiful. If the person has been in pain, it’s almost like the pain just drops away. The body relaxes and the skin takes on a subtle glow. A peacefulness emanates from the dying person. This stillness radiates into the room, expanding into the space, filling it. For each death I was actually present at, I remember the person. Even today, many years later, I can tell you their names. Each one made a profound impact on me, like an imprint, that stays with me. I felt honoured to have been there. I still do.”

Someone else at the meeting spoke up. “I was there when my father died, and I know what you mean. I called it love, that this is what radiated from him, and like you described, it filled up the whole room. It was profound. I was so glad to be there.”

Huguette shared that sometimes family members are not present at the moment of death. They may know it is imminent, yet during the half hour they step out of the room the death occurs. This happens too often to be a coincidence. “Perhaps some people prefer to die with no one present. I don’t know why,” Huguette says. “It’s part of the mystery.”

“There are also times,” she told us, “that the dying person sees others in the room that we can’t see. They may call them by name, a loved one who has gone before them. It seems someone has come to help them cross over. People die with their arms outstretched, as if they are reaching up to someone. Some die with joy on their face.”

We wondered aloud about people who die suddenly, like in a car accident or violently. “I remember being in an accident,” one person said. “It was as if time slowed down, everything happened in slow motion. Perhaps what is sudden to us isn’t sudden to them. Maybe they, too, experience the euphoria of peace right at the end.”

Of course this is in the realm of mystery, but there are many accounts of people who have had near-death experiences who echo those accounts shared in the meeting.

Thich Nhat Hanh is quoted as saying, “If you can’t look death in the eye, you can’t really live either.” One of the intentions of the DeathCaring Collective is to talk about death and dying; share our experiences and learn from one another. By exploring this topic, it becomes more comfortable. 

Written by Margaret Verschuur