Everyone’s heard the phrase “dying in your sleep.” But what does dying in your sleep feel like? Is it really peaceful, like Grandma’s obituary said? What actually happens when someone dies in their sleep?
What dying in your sleep is actually like—i.e., what happens to the body, since we have no firsthand accounts—depends on the true cause of death, of which there are many. Science tells us that, yes, it is actually possible to die a seemingly painless death while remaining asleep.
But what are the facts behind the obituaries? What can actually cause you to die in your sleep? Read on to learn what the phrase really means.
You Died of Cardiac Arrhythmia
Here’s what Dr. Simone Gold, an ER doctor from California, told Simpson: “If a patient simply dies, without any symptoms, which of course we don’t know unless it is witnessed, but when that is what occurs, absolutely and without question the most common reason would be a cardiac arrhythmia, specifically ventricular fibrillation or pulse-less ventricular tachycardia.” Basically, your heart starts to beat differently than it usually does, which leads to death.
You Died of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
The CDC says more than 400 Americans die this way each year. It warns that those who are “sleeping or drunk” can die before experiencing a single symptom of CO poisoning.
You Were Electrocuted
Lantz says touching that hairdryer in the bathroom late at night before going to bed could give off a shock, but an irregular heartbeat caused by that shock may not start that second:
“It may give them enough time to lie down on the bed and fall asleep or fall down on the bed. They might not be found right next to the device that caused the electrocution.”
You Died of Central Sleep Apnea
Central sleep apnea typically affects people older than 65 and is caused by losing brain cells that help control your breathing. Older folks with already weak hearts and lungs stop breathing during sleep because of a lack of those cells. They’re unable to rouse themselves naturally and they die from lack of oxygen.
You Died of Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome
Dr. Shelley Adler, author of Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection, makes the controversial claim that the Hmong died in their sleep because of their belief in night spirits:
It is my contention that in the context of severe and ongoing stress related to cultural disruption and national resettlement (exacerbated by intense feelings of powerlessness about existence in the United States), and from the perspective of a belief system in which evil spirits have the power to kill men who do not fulfill their religious obligations, the solitary Hmong man confronted by the numinous terror of the night-mare (and aware of its murderous intent) can die of SUNDS.
You Died of a Stroke
Elizabeth Simpson shared an anonymous journalist’s story about their mother dying of a stroke in her sleep at 82 in The Virginian-Pilot in 2011:
She was physically active and mentally alert up until her final moment. She most likely thought warmly about her granddaughter’s upcoming wedding when she went to bed that night. The TV in her bedroom was still on when her body was discovered the next morning. She was in bed leaning back against a pillow. The remote control was still in her hand.
You Died of a Brain Aneurysm
As the director of the school’s Islamic Learning Foundation put it, her poor parents saw “their daughter graduate literally hours before she was declared completely brain dead.”
You Died of Enterovirus D68
Enterovirus D68 is spread through “respiratory secretions and excrements” and presents itself as a mild to severe respiratory illness when (or if) symptoms emerge. The CDC says there is no specific antiviral medication available to fight the virus, which most commonly infects kids.
You Died Peacefully
Compare this to the so-called “agonal respiration” of a patient desperately clinging for life. This breathing can sometimes last for hours, and is a sign of the body struggling to die. This struggle can even occur in a patient technically asleep and medicated with morphine.
It Was Just a Euphemism
I was 17 and decided that was how I wanted to go. Twenty-five years later, when my mother was dying of cancer, I learned that, in fact, he had committed suicide. He had cancer and did not want to be a burden to his family. That’s what he wrote on the note that he left for my grandmother and mother, pinned to his pajamas. He was a doctor and evidently had stowed away enough pills for when the time came.