Spurred by the unenviable task of writing a very personal obituary to look beyond the stock phrases so common in those pieces, Virginian-Pilot reporter Elizabeth Simpson set out to find exactly what she was saying when she wrote that her 88-year-old father “died peacefully in his sleep.” She started with two simple questions.
What is it you die of when you don’t wake up in the morning?
And, is it the peaceful death everyone assumes?
She learned from a coroner that most common culprit for these deaths, including her father’s, is a cardiac arrhythmia, but that bit of knowledge raises more questions than it answers. She gained more insight from a post on AHCJ’s electronic discussion list (members can sign up for free!), where reporters shared both professional experiences and personal insights so compelling that Simpson included them in the story (you’ll find quotes about a third of the way down the page, under the “I posed the subject” subheading).
Simpson’s investigation takes her through the worlds of hard-nosed medical description, hospice and palliative care, life support and even sudden infant death syndrome, but ultimately ends up back where she started: “peacefully.”
Bush explained that sometimes you can die in your sleep during a massive stroke or a ruptured aneurysm. But in those cases, a person usually will have complained earlier about symptoms like a headache or other pain. A heart attack or pulmonary embolism usually will cause enough pain to lead the person to wake and go to an emergency room.
But death during sleep with no symptoms at all is likely due to the heartbeat going haywire. In Bush’s opinion, it is the way to go.
Peaceful? She thinks so.
Sometimes, she said, such a person will be curled up in a sleeping position, the blankets tucked around them, no evidence of thrashing about. Their faces are serene, their eyes closed. By contrast, in cases where death comes while not sleeping, there’s a 50-50 chance the eyes will be open.