Waking up Dead

People often say that they want to die in their sleep, or as I like to put it, to wake up dead. Since, when we are asleep, we are unaware, at least on a conscious level, of what is going on in and around us, dying while sleeping must mean dying without being aware of it, that the next moment of awareness, if there is one, will be in the afterlife. Children are often taught to pray, "if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take."

          At times, when my dying patients describe visions or experiences that nobody else saw, I wonder whether what they are relating is somehow like what we encounter in deep sleep. Discounting when we are in drug-induced states of altered consciousness, like general anesthesia, our quotidian sleep episodes seem likely to be the closest we come to being dead might be like.

          The similarity between sleep and death has been noted innumerable times before, usually metaphorically. Some religious traditions, especially those with medieval influences, envision sleep as a time of danger, night as the realm of demonic activity and spiritual peril. One ancient nighttime prayer asks God to “defend us from all perils and dangers of this night,” and the service of Compline, the concluding daily office opens requesting that “The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end.”

         We all know of Hamlet’s Act III soliloquy that begins, “To be or not to be, that is the question,” whether we learned it in high school or from some comedic parody. The melancholy prince of Denmark finds himself in unsolvable and distressing predicament: his royal father murdered by his brother, Hamlet’s uncle, who has now taken the throne and married his mother the queen, his father’s ghost commanding him to remember and avenge the murder, his fiancée going mad after Hamlet killed her father, and maybe his own sanity at risk. Life, being, is unbearable; maybe death, not being, would be better. But maybe dying is like sleeping, and with sleeping come disturbing dreams and what if this goes on forever?

         Is there any biologic or spiritual similarity between going to sleep and dying? We do, in our final farewell to those we know, bless them to rest in peace. Do we mean resting without awareness of anything, or having only pleasant dream experiences, or well, just what is it that we ask for them, and eventually for ourselves? If we envision them as alive is some new realm, is that resting? Or if we assume they no longer exist except for a decomposing corpse, why do we bother saying anything like this? And does any of this have anything to do with what I call waking up dead?
        Sleep well.

Photos by Danny G and Alex Blăjan on Unsplash