Do people really die in their sleep?

Often people who pass away are said to die peacefully in their sleep. Does this really happen, or is it just what doctors tell the relatives to comfort them? I would have thought that most forms of death involve some pain, and that this would be enough to wake a sleeper.

Some heart attacks and strokes kill people very fast so the person might go from sleep to being knocked out and then dead without waking up. But obviously we don’t know for sure if the person woke up or not.

My father died in his sleep, I was sitting in the other room watching TV.

We worked at the same business at that time and he had missed a few days of work. Since mom was out of town, I went to check on dad. He said he hadn’t been feeling very well and thought he had the flu. I talked him into going to the doctor but he wanted to wait until morning and get some sleep. So he went to bed and I spent the night to make sure he would go in the morning.

When I turned off the TV and went to bed I checked on him and he was laying there just as peaceful as can be, looked quite serene. But he was gone.

That was over 20 years ago but the father of a close friend of ours just died in his sleep a month ago. Didn’t get up at his usual time and was gone when they went to check.

I have known other people who died in their sleep and from my experience it seems fairly common.

It does happen, but just because someone’s body was found in bed, doesn’t mean that they died peacefully.

People can and do die painfully in their beds.

(Wow, that sounds depressing).


My grandma died in her “sleep”, said sleep being at least somewhat morphine induced. This was about a month ago - she had pneumonia, my mother was there. She closed her mouth and breathed one more breath, and my mom said there was no sign that she woke up.

When I die, I would like to go peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather did. Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.
–Jack Handey

My grandmother did. She was in a nursing home and it was clear she didnt have long left. She was asleep but the room was cold so my mom lay down next to her and put her arm around her. Mom dozed off for a minute, woke up and grandma was gone.

My husband and some friends were on vacation. One of the party decided to lie down on the couch and take a nap. The rest of them were playing cards in the same room. Mealtime arrived and the sleeper could not be awakened.

I would venture a guess that most people (who die of natural causes/illness) die in their sleep. My father died in his (morphine induced) sleep, all of my grandparents died in their sleep (one of emphysema/respiratory illness, one of cancer, one in drug-induced “sleep” and one of unknown but natural causes at a very old age). I think it might be part of the body’s defense mechanism to go into sleep and stay that way during what could be a painful and/or scary event- either that or it is sheer exhaustion of the body from fighting/trying to heal from whatever the cause of death is.

Over the years I’ve witnessed a number of deaths and talked to families about the circumstances of many more.

A sudden abnormal heart rhythm unaccompanied by pain is a common occurrence, as are certain almost instantly fatal cerebrovascular events (particularly at the level of the brainstem). These can result in almost instantaneous and painless loss of sensorium. If the patient was sleeping at the time, they can be said to have died in their sleep. If they were doing something they can be said to have passed away suddenly and peacefully (anxious fellow auto passengers notwithstanding, as Colibri hilariously notes).

Though it would have been way cooler if people woke up screaming in pain while they died, in my nursing experience all that happened was that next time you went to take obs they were dead.

My neighbor across the road died on the toilet when I was a teenager. Again a disappointing lack of ghoulish screams.

My uncle died in his sleep. He went to bed with my aunt and when she woke up he was dead. There’s no way of knowing how peaceful it was, but if he had screamed or thrashed he would have likely woken her up.

On the other hand, someone who worked in a nursing home once told me that a lot of folks die on the toilet. When that happens, they usually tell the family that the person died peacefully in their sleep.

I found my grandmother lying lifeless in her bed. She was lying on her side, and the covers over her were lying smooth and flat. No sign of any struggle, she just wasn’t in there any more :frowning:

We always called that “vagaling out” because it is typically a vagal response (which can cause syncope and other less fatal reactions) that is the cause of death.

Father in law, same thing a few months ago, was up at 3AM, mother in law felt bad he couldn’t sleep, he went back to bed, she woke up at 7AM, made him some chorizo an hour later and went into the bedroom to wake him up and found him dead as a doornail.

I’m going to post a counter-example here. Anectdotal, of course.

I was told this story by my grandmother. My grandfather was quite sick. Terminally ill. He was at home, not in a hospital, because he wouldn’t have it any other way. He was asleep, and my grandmother was in another room in the house. She heard him call out “[Grandmother’s name], can you come in here?” No sign of pain or distress. So she went in to the bedroom, and he said “I’m going to die now.” Again, no pain, no distress. And she said he did. He just died, right then. No thrashing, no pain, no momentous struggle. She said it was just like the lights went out.

She always said she was glad he’d called her.

I believe Elvis died in the bathroom, at least that is where they found his body.

Life imitates art. This is exactly how my father died. He was driving an RV with four passengers, when he suddenly just drifted off the road and down an embankment, rolling the vehicle. The passenger in the front seat looked at him as the vehicle left the road and said his eyes were fixed and glassy, as though he was already gone. Several of the passengers were injured, one seriously. An autopsy was inconclusive, citing complications of heart disease, but no heart attack.

My mother-in-law had congestive heart failure. One day, she sat down on the couch, sighed and closed her eyes. Surrounded by her husband, kids and grandkids – traumatic for them, of course, but extremely peaceful for her.

I was with my father, who had Alzheimer’s, when he died. I was looking straight at him, and suddenly I could tell he was no longer alive. His eyes and mouth were in fact open; I had to close them. But I have no idea whether he was in any sense “awake.”