Usually the patient takes a last breath and sighs or shudders and is dead. Many people have another effort or two at breathing but really are not moving air. A few have movement of limbs or trunk for up to ten minutes.
Still, how will you know that the person has died? If there is no air moving, the person is dead. There is no urgency to making the determination, so you can just sit and watch for a few minutes. Family and friends may want to spend a few minutes crying, praying, or meditating.
Many of us are too unfamiliar with death to be comfortable deciding that it has happened. In a hospital or nursing home, someone who can check with a stethoscope can be summoned. In hospice or regular home care, a nurse can usually come to the home within an hour or so.
If the death is at home, the family really needs to plan ahead so that no one calls 911 or involves the emergency rescue system. Emergency technicians will often find it difficult to size up the situation quickly, so just when the family needs comfort and time, they instead have to explain themselves to an outsider. Families may find more comfort if they call the doctor's office or the hospice. Often it helps to have spoken to your doctor in advance about what is going on.
Many people really need to hear someone else say that the person is dead. "Pronouncing" a person dead is important. Even if it is perfectly obvious, family should still be able to ask "Is he dead?" and hear from someone else that he is. Again, talk with the doctor or hospice nurse about how this will be done.
To learn more about the book "Handbook for Mortals" click here.