What happens physically when someone dies

Nearing the End of Life Brochure is available as a hard copyor you can download it onto Kindle

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It is impossible to predict when the moment will actually happen.  People can hover between life and death for a long time, and it is easy to miss the moment. However, there are certain signs which indicate the person is preparing for death, such as:

  • Congestion in the lungs: The person’s breath becomes laboured and ‘gurgling’, which can sound alarming. However, this is quite normal and caused by secretions pooling in the back of the throat.
  • Yawning:  Even when unconscious or semi-conscious, the person may often yawn.  This is a natural response of the body’s need to get oxygen to the vital organs.
  • Coldness in the limbs: Sometimes the person’s hands, arms, feet and legs become cold, with the skin colour changing to a pallid yellow as blood circulation slows down.  However, this many not happen until right at the end.
  • Tea-coloured urine: The lack of fluid intake and kidneys beginning to shut down means the person’s urine will become concentrated and tea-coloured. It may also have a pungent smell or cease altogether.
  • Incontinence: As the muscles of the body cease to function, there may be a loss of bladder and bowel control. In some cases, nursing staff may need to insert a catheter.
  • Agitation and restlessness: Dying people who are confused or semi-conscious can become quite distressed. They may also cry out. Nursing staff will often give medication such as morphine to calm them down.
  • Dark bruising: As the body system slows down, blood may coagulate, or pool, particularly at the base of the spine, with patches which look like dark purple bruising.
  • Smell: The shutting down of the dying person’s system and the changes of the metabolism from the breath and skin and body fluids, create a distinctive acetone odour. Be aware that this will happen, and that it may at first be uncomfortable for you.
  • No longer responding: The person can no longer speak even when awake, and will take rasping breaths through an open mouth. This can sound like loud snoring which can be very disconcerting to listen to.   It also makes the mouth dry. You can help to ease this by gently wiping mouth and lips with a damp cloth.
  • Breathing pattern change : The person can alternate between loud rasping breaths to quiet breathing.   Towards the end, the dying will often breathe only periodically, with an intake of breath followed by no breath for several seconds, and then a further intake.  This is know as Cheyne-Stokes breathing. It can be  upsetting to witness as the person seems to have ceased breathing only to start again.
  • When death happens, it happens very quickly.  There is no doubt about what is taking place. Sometimes the person will give several outward pants as their heart and lungs stops.    Others may give a long out-breath followed  quite a few seconds later by what seems another intake of breath.  This may be repeated for several minutes, which can be alarming if you are not ready for it.  However, this is only the lungs expelling air.

Other indicators are very clear:

  • There will be no pulse.
  • Skin colour rapidly drains to a sallow yellow.
  • Facial expression changes, or loosens. You may not feel you ‘recognise’ the person anymore. Some people look remarkably at peace.
  • There is a sense of no-one being ‘home.

What you may experience immediately after someone has died.

In medical terms the dying process is viewed as a biological closing down of the body’s systems. It is difficult to know during this process when the person’s consciousness dies. However, the moment of death can be experienced in many ways. It can be an intensely spiritual encounter. Alternatively, it may feel rather prosaic. The essence of the person has gone, leaving behind a body that seems like an empty envelope.

You may feel grief. You may feel numb. You may feel relief. It may feel like an anti-climax—especially in a hospital or institution, where nursing staff may be coming in and out to deal with necessary practicalities.

If it’s what you want, staff may also leave you alone for a while with the body—and that can be both reassuring and sometimes unexpectedly peaceful.

Sometimes, those present report less immediate physical experiences.

Carers and relatives may talk of seeing vapours leaving or hovering over the body. Others have described loving light filling the room or a sudden change in room temperature. Or there may be a heaviness in the air which takes time to clear. Or there may be other strange phenomena.

Relatives and friends who were not there may experience ‘seeing’ the dead person and or sensing the dead person and knowing exact time of death before they are officially informed. These ‘visitations’ are usually comforting and reassuring, and never forgotten.

It’s not unusual to feel disconnected 

It’s not unusual after someone has died, especially when you were present at the time, to feel disconnected from people, places or things. It can feel as if you are in a dream, or looking at life through frosted glass.   This can especially difficult when you are thrown into the intensity of making funeral arrangements.

It can be hard to explain how you are feeling, especially to those who have never witnessed a death. But feeling strange or disconnected from reality is understandable when we have watched someone die.  Life will never be the same again.  It can’t be when we have witnessed something as profound as this.

You may feel you don’t know what to do with yourself. You can find yourself aimlessly wandering around, feeling lost and alone and deeply questioning everything in your life.

Over the following weeks and months, for some there may be emotional and spiritual rawness that throws up feelings of anger as well as grief. For others, it can be truly liberating. We only really know what we need to deal with as we go through our grieving process.

7 thoughts on “What happens physically when someone dies

  1. I have a concern that I may have made the wrong decision agreeing with the hospital doctors to LET MY MUM GO when she was sent there by the nursing home becasue she had become unresponsive. How do I deal with this . It haunts me every minute of the day. PLEASE HELP

    • Hi Cheryl
      Thank you for your note. I am so sorry to hear how distressed you have been about your mum. I would recommend to anyone in a similar situation to talk things through with someone they trust or a counsellor who specialises in bereavement and loss. This will hopefully help you to find some clarity about what happened.

      I wish you the very best with this.

      • I’m going through the same haunting. My sister was declared brain dead whilst being 4 months pregnant. With the persistence of her husband, my sisters and I agreed to switch the machine off. I feel I have betrayed her by giving up.

      • Hi Cheryl,

        I made a decision to take my father out of a retirement home (that kept making the point to leave him there since it wasn’t as “clinical” as a hospital and because my mother who had dementia (as well as him)) and take him to the hospital in his last days. The retirement home was incapable of monitoring him and keeping him comfortable and free of pain. My only regret is that I didn’t take him sooner so that his pain could have been better managed.

        Don’t feel bad. You did the best you could.

        Francine

  2. Hello Cheryl
    I am so sorry to hear about what you are going through. We are going through exactly the same thing right now with our mother. It was a hard decision to make, but the right one. When there is no quality of life left, not even the ability to recognise relatives, swallow or move, there can be no option but to let them go. Remember, what you are letting go is only the shell that once housed the wonderful spirit of the person. They will always be with you in memory and love. Smile at your memories, and rejoice in the person she was. Sending you lots of love.

  3. My father was the same way. My dad was not doing anything on his own, the Dr told us after 3 days that the man that we knew as our father was gone. We knew he would not wnt to be like that, like someone else said the quality of life is gone. He could not wake or talk, we loved him enough to let him go. Although we will miss him terribly he is at peace now, resting in the sweet arms of our Lord and savior. I hope this helps someone. Be blessed!

  4. My mom died of a stroke, completely unexpected, about a month ago. By the time I got to the hospital, she was on a respirator and most of her brain function was gone. I have 3 brothers, all married, and all of us were there. There was no hope of recovery so we all decided to let her go and wait for the end.
    Once the respirator was off, my mom lasted for about 50 minutes. Her breathing, which was gurgling and labored, continued unchanged until about 45 minutes in, when she started to slow down. Her systems started to shut down at that point.
    As she slowed, nothing much changed. Her skin was cold the entire time. Yet she shed a single tear on the right side of her face at the very end. I felt, rightly or wrongly, that her she was mourning her departure. She then declined rapidly; her pulse faded and her skin eventually drained of color.
    We will all die. ~75 years, give or take, is a tiny fraction of time in the 14 billion years of the universe. 14.000.000.075. Don’t beat yourself up over buying few years of pain. My dad is in a home with Parkinson’s and Alzheimers, for the past 7 years, and I know that he’d have traded that for a dramatic loss at sea if he could – he loved the ocean and its sense of adventure. Find your own adventure and live it, don’t second-guess your prolongation of those who’ve moved on. We’ll find out soon enough why we’re tested here; in the meantime, find out all the things that bring you joy.

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