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.

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The books I picked & why

Lessons from the Dying

By Rodney Smith (,

Book cover of Lessons from the Dying

Why did I love 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.

By Rodney Smith (,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lessons from the Dying as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Rediscover the mystery and wonder of life through gentle reflections on death and dying.

What can death teach the living? Former monk and hospice worker Rodney Smith teaches us that through intimately considering our own inevitable end we can reawaken to the sublime miracle of life we so often take for granted. A well of stories, personal anecdotes, and direct advice gleaned from years of working with the dying in their final moments, Lessons from the Dying helps us redefine our conception of what it means to truly live. Each chapter contains guided reflections and exercises that allow the reader…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Ira Byock,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Four Things That Matter Most as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Four simple phrases-"Please forgive me," "I forgive you," "Thank you," and "I love you"-carry enormous power to mend and nurture our relationships and inner lives. These four phrases and the sentiments they convey provide a path to emotional wellbeing, guiding us through interpersonal difficulties to life with integrity and grace.

Dr. Ira Byock, an international leader in palliative care, explains how we can practice these life-affirming words in our day-to-day lives. Too often we assume that the people we love really know that we love them. Dr. Byock demonstrates the value of "stating the obvious" and provides practical insights into…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Sherwin B. Nuland,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked How We Die as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER • NATIONAL BESTSELLER • The definitive resource on perhaps the single most universal human concern: death.

Even more relevant than when it was first published, this edition addresses contemporary issues in end-of-life care and includes an all-embracing and incisive afterword that examines the state of health care and our relationship with life as it approaches its terminus. How We Die also discusses how we can take control of our own final days and those of our loved ones.

"Nuland's work acknowledges, with unmatched clarity, the harsh realities of how life departs… There is compassion, and often…

The Experience of Dying

By E. Mansell Pattison,

Book cover of The Experience of Dying

Why did I love 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.

By E. Mansell Pattison,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Experience of Dying as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Experience of Dying (A Spectrum book) S-419 - by E. Mansell Pattison - 1977

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Frank Ostaseski,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Five Invitations as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project and pioneer behind the compassionate care movement shares an inspiring exploration of the lessons dying has to offer about living a fulfilling life.

Death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road. Death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment. She is the secret teacher hiding in plain sight, helping us to discover what matters most.

Life and death are a package deal. They cannot be pulled apart and we cannot truly live unless we are aware of death. The Five Invitations is an exhilarating…

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