Why do dying people reach upward?


I've noticed that when it gets toward the end for people (not necessarily the VERY end, but maybe the last month or so when they have started really going downhill) they will hold their arms upward once in awhile and then let them fall at their sides.

I've seen this a lot. My father-in-law did it, too. He would have his eyes closed and raise his arms in the air as if he were reaching up.

Is this some kind of strange reflex or something?

26 Answers


94 Posts

Specializes in Cardiac x3 years, PACU x1 year. Has 4 years experience.

I would wager that "heaven" being commonly associated with 'up' has something to do with it. Lots of metabolic and chemical processes going on, a dying person's need to feel that there is something of an after life... lots of reasons. Interesting question, but I don't think anecdotal experiences (as many as there may be) prove that any such place exists.

UM Review RN, ASN, RN

7 Articles; 5,163 Posts

Specializes in Utilization Management.

I think it depends on your spiritual point of view, but I've actually heard people reach and say loved ones' names who were long gone. So I think they're seeing them again and can see who's going to welcome them on the other side.


172 Posts

I took this world religion class, and there are universals among the major religions, like that heaven is assoc with sky, and earth with 'mother' and hell is down below. there is a good book about that, if only i could remember the name (I am info overloaded right now) and i forgot what was assoc w/ water (something was), that was true for all the major religions.


2 Articles; 983 Posts

Specializes in ICU, SDU, OR, RR, Ortho, Hospice RN.

Interesting post and I do see it many times over in my work as a Hospice Case Manager.

It quite often gives the patient comfort when they are reaching up and smiling. Speaking to loved ones who have died before them.

Now there is reaching and grabbing in an agitated state for which then it is a different ball game and they need to be treated for terminal agitation.

allnurses Guide

Spidey's mom, ADN, BSN, RN

11,302 Posts

The book "Final Gifts" by Maggie Callanah and Patricia Kelley talks about "Nearing Death Awareness", the process of dying. It talks about the behaviors of dying people, which frequently are misinterpreted as dementia and/or ignored.

"In the final hours, days or weeks of life, dying people often make statements or gestures that seem to make no sense."

It is a fascinating book.


444 Posts

Specializes in Psych.

The higher the arm, the closer to God!


153 Posts

Specializes in ER/Nuero/PHN/LTC/Skilled/Alzheimer's.

I saw the raising arms thing and calling out for dead (or absent) family members quite a lot in LTC and NH. My own grandmother who was A& Ox3 right up until she passed, woke up at one point asking for her grandfather, who had been dead for decades. It scared me at the time because I knew that meant the end was near but now it comforts me to think that she saw a loved one who came to help her cross over.

I have also seen those passing over become extremely frightened at the end and start asking "not to go there" wherever "there" is. I don't see much of this now in the ER, usually they come tubed and in the middle of compressions or DOA or with a rhythm (and then over to ICU). I don't really miss seeing death bed scenes like LTC.

I find as far as believing goes, it hurts nothing to believe in something above, so why argue about it? You believe in what you believe, I'll do the same and solemnly swear not to appear on anyone's doorstep ready to convert people. I'm not that good at convincing people anyway.


829 Posts

Specializes in Home Care, Hospice, OB.
motorcycle mama said:
that's pascal's wager and nothing wrong with it at all.

Whoa... I love folks who have read a lot!!

Hey--I spent 18 years in catholic education, and couldn't get out of college (with my first degree) without 2 semesters each of theology and philosophy, plus formal logic..[if p, then q stuff]

I may be way off base, but what I sense insofar as those who feel annoyed on either side is:

Agnostics/atheists....."wish they'd act like educated folks and stop with the fairy tales"..

Theists..."if I don't help these folks they're gonna have a horrible life and then go to hell"

Besides, who likes to contemplate the notion that their entire world view may be a fraud.........so let's speak our truths without preaching either way.

Katie82, RN

642 Posts

Specializes in Med Surg, Tele, PH, CM. Has 41 years experience.

My co-workers and I were discussing this issue last week. One of them had a near-death experience several years ago where she was comatose and barely hanging on for several days. She swears that several of her deceased relatives were in the room with her telling her they would be happy to "have her home". She said her mother finally appeared in the room and announced that it was not her time. She thinks she woke up shortly after. I don't know what to make of these kinds of stories, but my friend is not normally a spiritual person. But when she tells the story, she gets tears in her eyes. I believe her, because I have heard dying patients talk to their dead loved ones. And they all seem to reach out, or up.

leslie :-D

11,191 Posts

yep, re angie's and blue's posts.

they really do see loved ones who have passed.

it's also heartwarming to listen to them have a seemingly, one-sided conversation...


Dorito, ASN, RN

311 Posts

Specializes in Med-Surg, , Home health, Education. Has 35 years experience.

We had an inservice on end of life issues yesterday sponsored by Hospice and it's very common. Many of them also "talk" to deceased friends/ relatives. I've also witnessed this many times in my career.

Specializes in School Nursing. Has 10 years experience.

they might see their lord and are anxious to be greeted by him