Death: What Happens When You Die (2023)

What happens to your physical body when you die?

Death marks that moment in life when your physical body stops working to survive. You breathe your last breath. Your heart stops beating. Your brain stops. Other vital organs, including your kidneys and liver, stop. All your body systems powered by these organs shut down, too, so that they’re no longer capable of carrying on the ongoing processes understood as, simply, living.

Death itself is a process. Thinking of death in this way — as a series of events, dying — makes it easier to understand the changes your body goes through to transition from life to death. From your first breath to your last, your existence depends on processes your body sets into motion. Dying is the final essential process your body carries out for you.

How long does it take to die?

Everyone’s timeline is different. How long it takes for your body to die depends on your health, treatments you’re receiving and the cause of death. For instance, untreated sudden cardiac arrest can result in death within minutes. With chronic (long-term) conditions, your body may take weeks or even months to die.

Common causes of death worldwide, such as heart disease, chronic lung disease and cancer are often treatable. These treatments not only delay death, but also prolong the dying process. This slowing down makes it easier to recognize common signs that death is approaching.

What happens to your body before death?

With chronic illnesses or death from natural causes, multiple changes occur as your body’s vital functions slow before stopping completely.

More sleep and less physical activity

When you’re dying, you don’t sleep to recharge your mind and body. Instead, you sleep because your body doesn’t have the energy for activity. Your heart becomes less able to pump oxygen-rich blood throughout your body. Without as much oxygen, your body’s cells don’t have the energy needed to keep you awake and active for long periods. Rest is an important part of dying.

Decreased appetite and thirst

A dying body doesn’t need the same amount of nourishment as a body that isn’t dying. Your appetite may decrease dramatically in the days, weeks or months before death. Your digestive system may have a harder time processing the food you eat. Eventually, you may lose your appetite altogether.

From the time we’re born, we learn from our caregivers that being nursed or fed is an act of love as well as survival. For this reason, your loved ones may insist that you eat. Your healthcare provider can offer guidance on when it’s best to use artificial feeding devices like a feeding tube and when food may be too much for your digestive system to handle.

Inability to control your bowel and bladder

As your digestive system slows, you may find it difficult to pass stool (poop). Constipation is a common symptom among people who are dying. You may also have less control over your pelvic floor muscles that allow you to control when you pee (incontinence).

Stool softeners can help relieve constipation. Medical devices that help you pee, like foley catheters, and supplies like incontinence pads can keep your bed clean.

Breakdown of your muscles and skin

It’s common to lose weight and muscle mass when you’re dying. Positioning yourself in bed or even talking may stress your muscles to exhaustion. New skin cells don’t replace dying ones as rapidly, causing your skin to thin. Thin skin is more susceptible to bruises, cuts and bedsores.

Your care team and loved ones can monitor your skin for infection and reposition you to ensure your skin doesn’t stay in contact with your bed for too long. They can moisturize your skin regularly to help prevent injury.

Withdrawal and detachment

It’s normal when you’re dying to express less interest in activities you used to enjoy. You may prefer being alone over visiting with others. Craving less interaction with others doesn’t mean you love friends or family members less. Your needs change as your body changes.

Declining or irregular vital signs

Your vitals include your temperature, pulse, respiration (breathing) rate and blood pressure. These numbers measure the health of organs essential for your survival, like your lungs, heart and brain. When you’re dying, your body temperature drops, and your skin may feel cold or clammy to the touch. Other numbers may be irregular or unpredictable as your vital organs work to keep you alive, even as you’re nearing death. As you approach your final hours, your respiration rate will steadily decline.

Agitation

Sudden bursts of energy or the feeling of restlessness following long periods of sleep may signal that death is close. You may feel capable of doing things that you’re not realistically able to do. You may try to leave the bed or remove medical devices you need, like an IV. You may become frustrated with caregivers who are trying to help you.

Changes in how you perceive your surroundings

Your brain may process sensory information (what you see, hear, smell, etc.) differently from how it once did. For instance, a sound that once seemed normal may seem scary or threatening. You may mistake one person for another. You may perceive things that people around you don’t seem to notice. These differences in perception may be more noticeable at night than during the day.

Some studies have shown that your brain releases a surge of chemicals as death approaches that may heighten your senses into a state of awareness or even hyperreality. For instance, people who are dying often speak of seeing a bright light. They may see themselves going on a journey where they’ll reunite with a deceased loved one.

Periods of unconsciousness

As death approaches, you may drift from sleep into unconsciousness, much like being in a coma or dream state. You may wake up later, unaware that you were unconscious. Toward the end, you’ll remain in this unconscious state of extended rest.

Research suggests that even as your body transitions into unconsciousness, it’s possible that you’ll still be able to feel comforting touches from your loved ones and hear them speaking. Touch and hearing are the last senses to go when we die.

Changes in your breathing

Your breathing patterns can signal how close you are to death. While regular, steady breaths are a sign of life and good health, unpredictable breathing is often a sign of failing health or death. As death nears, you may go for longer periods without breathing. If there’s saliva build-up in the back of your throat (because the muscles in your throat aren’t strong enough to swallow), you may make a rattling sound when you breathe. This sound is often called a “death rattle.”

Eventually, you’ll take your final breath.

What happens to your body during death?

During death, your body’s vital functions stop entirely. Your heart no longer beats, your breath stops and your brain stops functioning. Studies suggest that brain activity may continue several minutes after a person has been declared dead. Still, brain activity isn’t the same as consciousness or awareness. It doesn’t mean that a person is aware that they’ve died.

Signs of death include:

  • No pulse.
  • No breath.
  • Reflexes that don’t respond to testing.
  • Pupils that don’t widen (dilate) in response to bright light.

What happens to your body after death?

Your body undergoes a series of changes after you die as it adjusts to its new state. These changes unfold quickly, over a few days.

  • Your muscles relax. Your muscles loosen immediately after death, releasing any strain on your bowel and bladder. As a result, most people poop and pee at death. Your skin may also sag, making it easier to see your bone structure beneath.
  • Your temperature drops. Your body temperature gradually decreases about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit (-16.9444 degrees Celsius) per hour. Eventually, your body temperature will match your surroundings.
  • Your blood gets pulled downward. Gravity pulls your blood downward, toward the Earth. Your skin may look purplish-red in the spots where blood pools.
  • Your body stiffens. Your body stiffens, first, at your face and neck. The stiffening progresses to the trunk of your body and gradually radiates outward to your arms and legs and then your fingers and toes.
  • Your body loosens again. A few days after death, your body’s tissue breaks down, causing the stiff parts to relax again.

Does dying hurt?

It depends. Pain is a part of life and may also be a part of death. Similar to how you experience different types of pain sensations in life (from the type of sensation to how intense it feels), you may experience various pain sensations in death. Much depends on your cause of death and whether you have access to pain medications. For instance, you may die suddenly and experience no pain at all.

Often, dying bodies fight to survive. The survival instinct programmed into our bodies can feel painful without medications. For example, a body that’s losing a life-threatening amount of blood will automatically direct the limited blood supply to vital organs. This response keeps these organs alive, but those body parts deprived of blood (like your arms and legs) may hurt. In emergency situations like these, medical professionals are trained to try to save your life and lessen your pain.

Hospice care medical professionals are experts at ensuring your comfort and care as you die. They recognize your body’s survival responses that may cause pain and provide comfort medicine that can help.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Dying is a natural process that unites us all. Still, it’s normal to fear death because of the unknowns. You may wonder what dying will feel like for yourself or a loved one. You may wonder if there’ll be pain or how much time it takes to go from your first labored breath to your last. These questions don’t have straightforward answers. But having a clearer understanding of what dying looks like can help you face your own death or the death of a loved one when the time comes. And having an idea of what’s to come can make you a more capable caregiver as you comfort a loved one who’s dying.

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