What are the Emotions of the Dying?

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When a person knows that death is near, his or her emotions around it can be as complicated as they are devastating. “When people face their own death, they realize they’re not the same person they were prior to facing it,” says Jill Cohen, a New York City–based grief counselor. “And most realize that their relationships aren’t the same either.” Here are some of the emotions most likely to surface:

Anger

When you feel your life is being cut short—at any age—it’s natural to feel angry. People may feel cheated that they’re not able to watch their young kids reach adulthood or that it’s unfair that their healthy lifestyle habits haven’t protected them from a terminal illness.

This anger may not always present in the manner we’d expect, says Cohen. Rather than rail against the disease or death itself, people may lash out at their loved ones or may demonstrate shorter tempers and outsize reactions to things that might otherwise be just small annoyances.

Loneliness

Even in a room crowded with family and friends, a person facing his or her own death may feel deeply alone. Death can be an isolating and solitary experience. That’s part of the reason many people facing their own death can benefit from support groups filled with others in a similar situation, says Cohen. But even with that support in place, knowing that death is looming can fuel a profound sense of loneliness.

Guilt

Guilt may sound like a surprising reaction to mortality, but it’s actually common, says Cohen. People often have a sense of guilt around the burden of their end-of-life care, of disrupting or overshadowing the lives of their loved ones, and of leaving behind a wake of medical bills and grief. People may also feel guilty that death is robbing their spouse, children, or siblings of future plans they may have had together, such as being walked down the aisle by a parent at a wedding. 

Regret

There can be intense feelings of regret over all that the individual intended to do but hasn’t yet done, such as finishing a big project or mending a torn relationship with a lost friend or estranged family member. Writing a letter to someone asking for forgiveness or otherwise extending an olive branch can go a long way in reducing those negative emotions.

Anxiety

Illness may bring with it a loss of mobility, energy, or appetite. Being confined to a hospital bed or having a calendar crowded with appointments and treatments make travel or even other activities impossible. For some, this lost control can stoke feelings of anxiety, for others a sense of malaise.

Sadness

This is the most expected emotion, and indeed, it is incredibly common. People are sad that their lives are coming to end, sad that they’ll miss out on future experiences and adventures, sad to say good-bye to their loved ones.

Still, if those sad emotions become overwhelming or unrelenting, a health care team may suggest counseling or an antidepressant medication, or both. Those facing their own death typically still have moments of joy and happiness. 

Peacefulness

Not all of the emotions surrounding an impending death are turbulent. “For some people—especially those who have had a long, full life—there is sometimes an acceptance that at some point life ends,” says Cohen. Ironically, that sense of calm can occasionally stir feelings of guilt, as friends and family members may expect the dying to be more distraught or enraged than they actually feel. But there is no right or wrong reaction to facing your own death, Cohen points out. Each person reacts in his or her own way, and every emotion that arises is valid.

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