I want to die in my sleep….but you shouldn’t.

“If I had my choice, I’d rather to die in my sleep”

Pretty common preference, right?

Here’s the good news:

Thanks to the wisdom of our body and how it shuts down to take care of you, that’s exactly what happens at the end of an illness or old age.

Over time, the individual has less and less energy, sleeps more and more, until he finally slips into a coma. While in that coma, the body continues to shut down and die. Depending on the illness one is succumbing to, that coma may last seconds or weeks.  So most people die in their sleep, as they wished!

Now here’s the perplexing news:

Although this is something we hope for ourselves, we often don’t trust or honor this process when it is our loved one that is dying.

The reasons can be simple: not understanding the dying process, the pain of letting go, the fear that there is something we need to do, or not do, to keep our loved one with us a bit longer.

When terminally ill individuals don’t want to get out of bed, or when they sleep more often, many concerned families declare they are over-medicated or perhaps giving up and willing themselves to die.  This can ignite a desire to stop a process they believe is hastening the dying.

There is also talk about ‘conscious dying’ and the belief that using any medications as death draws near will rob that person of final communications.

There is fear that medications are hastening death.

These fears must be acknowledged and addressed. It’s not an easy balance:  we want our loved ones comfortable, but worry about over-medicating. We want to honor the natural process of dying,  but we miss the conversation and hugs as they sleep more.  In my 40 years as a nurse, I have witnessed very few ‘Hollywood-type deaths’ where the person could say a few words just before dying. Usually they are in the coma, still able to hear you and feel the energy you bring to the bedside, but unable to respond beyond an occasional grasp of fingers, or a single tear of good bye.

Navigating the dying process and comfort needs requires the compassionate guidance and support of those trained in palliative and hospice care.

There are many individuals who will experience no uncomfortable symptoms at all and never take any medications in their finals days, yet the gradual increase in sleep occurs just the same. This is the natural process of the body shutting down. The presence of any symptoms depends on the illness and medications are there if needed to keep the person comfortable, not ‘knock them out’ or hasten death.   No one wants to think they or anyone they love will experience discomfort before death because needed medications are being withheld simply due to lack of understanding.  It’s that fear of physical suffering that can cause folks to say they would prefer a hastened or assisted death.

Know that increasing sleep is a natural part of dying.  Honor that process.  Provide necessary meds to promote comfort.  Surround them in your love as they slumber.  You are committed to the comfort of your loved one, just as you hope others will be committed to your own comfort when your time comes.

If you want to die in your sleep, let them die in theirs.


For more information about the dying process-  See “Dying to Know – Straight Talk About Death & Dying” on this website.

6 thoughts on “I want to die in my sleep….but you shouldn’t.

  1. I am 75 and my neighbor’s mother is in the final stage of dying she said. She also said (and I have heard this one before) she will tell her mother “it’s OK to go now”. What is that supposed to mean? That she is sick and tired of putting up with her and hurry up and die, already? That’s how I would take it if I was the one dying. And I would summon my last ounce of strength and slap anyone who said that to me.

  2. This is related to those dying of ongoing disease, not the sudden deaths. You can certainly have the conversation with your loved ones about “If I had a choice, this is how I want to go”. So if it happens that way, they can say “it’s exactly the way [you] wanted. It’s a great conversation starter about end of life choices and you will hear the preferences of others and gain insights.

  3. My husband died in his sleep. He was never sick a day in his life. He had diabetes but no outward signs or symptoms of any other problems. He just didn’t want to be 70 yrs old. So 2 weeks prior to his 70th birthday he went to sleep and didn’t wake up. His family thought I should have rescued him but I am not sure if I would have been able to do that.

    • not an easy choice and I suspect the family reaction makes it more difficult. Some folks seem to be able to will their death (and more men prefer to die before their birthdays, unlike more women who prefer to wait until after) Unless you knew the moment he stopped breathing, any resuscitation attempts would either have been futile or left him very incapacitated. Sounds like you have found some peace in knowing it was his desire and his time and that he experienced a peaceful slumber till death too over. Thank you for sharing.

  4. I had a friend that passed away recently of bone cancer, the doctor didn’t want to increase the dosage of the morphine, due to their patient will get addicted. Does it really matter, if the patient is terminal ill why do doctors hesitate on giving them what they need to make them comfortable?

    • It’s unfortunate that more providers are not familiar with proper use of medications, which is why consulting a palliative or hospice trained physician is critical. I am so sorry your friend did not get the comfort that was needed. Addiction is not the issue – only tolerance to medication, and our job is to increase the med to the comfort of the patient as good medical practice. Addiction refers to the use of a medication for non-medical purposes, often seeking a ‘high’. When pain is present, the right medication in the right amount for the particular pain is the appropriate treatment. I have to believe your friend’s doctor wanted to provide the best care, but was not trained in palliative care. The good news is that there are great resources out there should you confront such an issue in the future. I’m sorry for the difficult memory this leaves you.

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