The best books about the experience of dying

Who am I?

When my mother enrolled in hospice after years of living with cancer, the nurse asked her: Do you want to know what will happen to your body as it starts shutting down? That was the first time anyone talked with us about the dying process. The question came as an immense relief, eventually inspiring this book. After witnessing the difficulties and surprising joys of my mother’s dying experience, I began hospice volunteering. Later, I spent three intensive stints volunteering at San Francisco’s Zen Hospice Project. And as a former journalist and associate professor of English, I began researching and interviewing experts. Their deep caring and knowledge inform this book.

I wrote...

What Does It Feel Like to Die?: Inspiring New Insights Into the Experience of Dying

By Jennie Dear,

Book cover of What Does It Feel Like to Die?: Inspiring New Insights Into the Experience of Dying

What is my book about?

What Does it Feel Like to Die? describes what doctors and scientists know about the experience of dying. I wrote the book for people like my mother or me, for baby boomers facing our parents’ impending deaths—and starting to grapple with our own mortality. It’s based on research and interviews with doctors, nurses, psychologists, and other experts, and is informed by my years as a hospice volunteer. The book is honest about the facts of dying, but it’s also ultimately hopeful, because it examines death and dying in order to better understand life.

The books I picked & why

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Lessons from the Dying

By Rodney Smith (,

Book cover of Lessons from the Dying

Why this book?

There are many books about what dying has to teach the living. This is the one I keep on my bedside shelf. When I talk to people about my own experiences with hospice and dying, they sometimes wax ecstatic about the subject. I believe they’re right to see the possibilities for joy and spiritual growth, but I also think it’s crucial to look at death with clear eyes. As a former Buddhist monk and hospice director who has worked with dying people, Smith does just that. Again, and again, he emphasizes that death does involve suffering. But he also writes movingly—and honestly—about the experiences he’s witnessed, helping readers to face our own mortality and learn how to live better and more joyfully.

The Four Things That Matter Most: A Book about Living

By Ira Byock,

Book cover of The Four Things That Matter Most: A Book about Living

Why this book?

I sometimes read aloud from this book to hospice patients because when you’re dying, it’s easy to believe that it’s too late—too late to make amends, too late to reconnect, too late to do anything more for the world you’re leaving behind. Byock, a doctor who has worked extensively with dying people, says that’s not the case. Instead, he urges his patients to communicate with their friends and family members, to say thanks, to forgive, to apologize, and to express their love. The book is filled with examples of times people on the edge of death were able to connect more deeply or heal old wounds, changing the lives of those close to them for the better.

How We Die: Reflections of Life's Final Chapter

By Sherwin B. Nuland,

Book cover of How We Die: Reflections of Life's Final Chapter

Why this book?

Until I began researching death and dying, I hadn’t realized my quest was so literal-minded. Despite the satisfyingly large number of relevant books, most circle around the subject, focusing on areas such as grief, the importance of creating a living will, or funeral planning—all important topics, but I wanted to learn about dying itself.

Then I discovered Nuland’s book. Chapter by chapter, he describes what we know about the physical experience of dying, depending on the type of death: Heart attacks, murders, falls, Alzheimer’s, cancer. Nuland’s background is in surgery, and his descriptions are neither graphic nor gory, but he doesn’t flinch from providing details. Although his book was first published in 1993, no one has yet matched its straightforward, informative approach.

The Experience of Dying

By E. Mansell Pattison,

Book cover of The Experience of Dying

Why this book?

Pattison’s book offers a rare mix: specific insights based on evidence and experience, and a kind of gentleness. Here’s an example of what I mean: This is where I first read about the ups and downs of “the living-dying interval,” the time between when a person is diagnosed with a terminal condition and death. Just naming and describing the interval helps others better imagine what it’s like. Pattison is also good at pointing out important nuances. He discusses attitudes at different stages of life, because of course it’s not the same to die at age ten as at age ninety. First published in 1977, this collection of essays—which includes pieces by other authors—takes an academic approach, but it’s one that’s extraordinarily thoughtful.

The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us about Living Fully

By Frank Ostaseski,

Book cover of The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us about Living Fully

Why this book?

Especially in its opening pages, I kept wishing I’d written this book. For me, it felt full of wisdom, as opposed to facts and knowledge.

Like several of my other favorite authors on dying, Ostaseki’s experience is grounded in hospice and Buddhism: He co-founded the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco and is a renowned Buddhist teacher. I first heard him speak a few weeks after he had his own close brush with death, and he came across as deeply caring and charismatic. His work with dying people led him to develop these guidelines—the “five invitations”—that also apply to the living: Don’t Wait. Welcome everything; push away nothing. Bring your whole self. Find a place of rest in the middle of things. Cultivate a beginner’s mind. 

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in death, life satisfaction, and Buddhism?

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