What happens physically when someone dies

It is impossible to predict when the moment death 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 approaching the end of life, 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:  Often 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 may not happen until right at the end.

Tea-coloured urine: The decrease of fluid in-take means the kidneys begin to shut down. This causes the person’s urine to become concentrated and tea-coloured or cease altogether. It may also have a pungent, acetone smell.

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 to calm them down.

Dark Bruising: As the body systems slow down, blood may coagulate or pool, particularly at the base of the spine creating patches which look like dark purple bruising.

Smell:  This is like a sweet and sour acetone odour caused by the body’s systems closing down. Be aware that this will happen, and that it may at first be unpleasant 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 may be very disconcerting to listen to. It also makes the mouth dry. You can help to ease this by gently wiping their mouth and lips with a damp cloth.

Breathing patterns 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 known 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 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 a few times and 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 change or loosen. 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 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 to be 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. For example, 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 present at the time of death 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 dies, 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 or walking around in a bubble. This can be 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.  However, feeling strange or disconnected from reality is understandable when we have watched someone conclude their journey. 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. For some people this can lead to feelings of release and freedom. For others, grief can be a very raw, protracted experience. We only really know what the death of someone means us as we go through our grieving process.

A note from Sue: Thank you for visiting this page. You may be interested in my Granny Mo children’s books, which help adults to talk with children about death and dying, and my books for adults on death and dying may help as well. You can also listen to a host of fascinating guests on my Embracing Your Mortality podcast and enjoy reading their interviews on my blog.

21 thoughts on “What happens physically when someone dies

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  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

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

      2. 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.


  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. 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.

  5. As a member of a volunteer emergency squad, I have seen many people die. As well as being the respite person for my family members who passed in my presence. A Non-Prophet Hospice member, I have seen more than my share of different ways in which people die. I can say that it has changed the way I look at life and death. I believe that death is as much a part of life as say…learning to walk as a toddler. A passing to another sort of life, a different stage of being as we know it.
    Of course it is difficult to be with a loved one when they pass. We will miss them them terribly and there are so many things left unsaid or unknown about our family members life. Perhaps, as I believe, a passing of a life on earth is followed by a time in life when you get to know all of the answers. Why this happened, why someone acted the way they did, even all of those unsaid, many unanswered questions. Heaven, or our next existence will bring, I believe, a calm that was never attainable in our life on earth. This brings me peace. While the sadness of loss may never go away for those left behind, a feeling that this person is not suffering any longer may give others a sense of relief to those who have watched a loved one in pain or just not been there as in Alzheimers, say goodbye.
    I feel blessed to I have been with someone who has passed. Many have become animated and talked to someone ….no one else could see, to come and get them.(?) Others seemed to wait until everyone left the room to pass, as if to spare loved one’s sadness at seeing them
    die. The blessing comes feeling as if I have been a part of, or some assistance or help to a dying person, in talking with them, giving them personal touch. I have lain with dying persons and held them, praying or saying words of comfort, such as, we, and their God will take care of the loved ones left behind. Many people are uncomfortable holding or touching a person who is dying, and should do what feels natural or comfortable for them. But if you can get past the fear the sadness and the scary smells that come with dying, you can whisper those secret thoughts or unfinished business, and the things that we may not want to say out loud. It has given me a gift of caring to hold one who may be afraid or confused about what is going to happen next. The human touch, a hug and closeness is as welcome, I believe, as one when we are alive.

  6. Hi. I just came across this. I actually feel that disconnected feeling, and the numbness, I lost my only sister on Saturday. Six years senior. I have not cried as yet, I just feel physically drained. Three hours before I definately felt uneasy. And said to my daughter something dosent feel right. Stayed up till around 2am. She was produced dead at 3am, they said she died in her sleep but we are not certain the exact time. I feel extremely sad but cannot cry. Thank you for this as I thought I ws going mad.

  7. I was so grateful that I was able to be with my Mother when she dies last Tuesday. What very remarkable thing did occur that I wish to share. Five minutes before she took her last breath a sweet aroma filled the air. It was a sweet I had never smelled before and a calmness and sense of peace filled the room. Mom was 100 years of age.

  8. I have been taking care of a man for the last seven months who was on hospice. A few hours before his passing he had shared with me that his deceased wife was in the bed with him. I felt blessed that he shared this with me.

  9. My Dad just ‘gave in’ hours after talking to my Mama, 2-3 hours after I went home. He was never married to his ‘two wives’ or ‘live-in partners’, so it’s good to know that his other wife allowed my Mama to finally talk to my Dad about us, their children. But noone or nothing will prepare you to accept death like a bad news on TV when you can move on the next day. There are so many things, you want to do and say, but knowing it will hold him back when you tell it to him, when he should just finally rest and have his peace felt like selfish to me — I know he has regrets and mistakes and he knows all of them, he probably wants to apologize for those but knowing my Dad, you just look him in the eyes and smile and everythings forgiven.

    On mother’s side, we have this ‘feeling’ or ‘sense’ when there is ‘someone’ or ‘something’ making his/her presence known, but I missed that. I’ve just realized now, that 4-6 hours ago, my Dad’s not ‘there’ anymore. It’s just a body of a very frail man, breathing but not responding. He was already gone. And my last words to him, ‘Deh, pahinga ka na’ (Deh – shorten for ‘Dy of Daddy. Pahinga – to rest. Ka – You. Na – here is use as stating a ‘time’ as now or starts now).

    And, he did.

    Just a thought. A memory that made me laughed now. When I was a kid, when my Mama ask me to tell my Dad to go home, he was stubborn to follow and whenever we ask him not to do ‘something’ he will do it, like he was drunk and he will sleep on the sofa when the bed’s already prepared for him.

    Tomorrow will be his first burial day. Glad that even in his short 60 years, he might not be the greatest ‘husband’ and father, but he was a great friend to alot of people that even those who lives far visits him — he was a valuable friend, co-worker, employee, god father to so many and a tease. He was the colors of my childhood days, he used to wake me up on Saturdays and Sundays by turning the videoke on and loud. He will sing from Frank Sinatra to Matt Monroe, from the goldies to the oldies. He bribes me an ice cream whenever I’m sick w/c irritates my mother. He was sweet when he’s drunk, he’s very serious when he’s sober. He taught us ‘unconciously’ the basics of house carpentry and how to ignore people w/ bad attitudes. He also took pride of where he came from, his home, his work and his friends. Hope he’s with his parents now, also with his ‘long-lost’ friends and his brother. And since, he wants me to get married now (and I don’t have a boyfriend), he should push ‘that man’ on my way.

  10. This just described exactly how I felt, The day we brought my mother/ grandmother home to die. I was by her side the last few days of her life, I never left her even to sleep. She knew me better then anyone we had a very strong bond , It’s been a year since she died and it’s getting better but we still let some tears fall. Now I’m working out more so that I can get into the Army and make her proud.

  11. Everything I’ve read on here is very true…my mother recently died of stage 4 lung cancer. I was present at the time of her death. It very scary indeed, but expected. If anybody is going through this right now I strongly suggest reading up on it. It’s hard, but you’ll know what to expect. As for me, of course there’s millions of questions, and anger and sadness. And this really helped me, thank you.

  12. Hello there. Thanks for your comment about your mum.

    When someone dies, the blood drains from the surface of the skin and pools at the back. So it looks as if the person has developed a chalky or waxy appearance. Often undertakers will use some kind of embalming fluid or other cosmetic enhancements to make the face look more normal.

    I hope this helps.

  13. This was, in my opinion, a solid article. I was present at the death of my Mother about two weeks ago now. Her decline was faster than anticipated and for me the most disturbing aspect of her impending death was the agitation and labored breathing which we were assured was a routine part of the process. I was alone with her on Friday afternoon and had opened up the blinds to allow in some natural sunlight – not too much but enough to fill the room with a natural source of lighting. She had been unresponsive for several days by then but we still talked to her.

    The oxygen concentrator, which had been on 24/7 for 11 days straight, was humming along and her face was red as her breathing got more intense. She breathed in and exhaled profoundly with a loud sigh of relief and that was it. Almost immediately, her face loosened into a serene repose and the puffy redness in her face receded She looked like herself but peacefully asleep.

    As to the sense of “no one at home” there is definitely an element of that but for me the initial moments right after her death were more like a gradual release process – the departed truly are after a certain point. It just seemed to me that her last breath triggered some type of “check out” process that might have lasted a little while longer. I can’t explain that in any rational way and it might have simply been my interest in seeing her as still living. Whatever the case, her face was very natural and tranquil. It takes a while for the physical processes to kick in that result in the person looking “dead” so one should not have fear about that happening immediately as It doesn’t.

    I saw more butterflies in the two days following her death than I had in the previous 2 years ! Google that to see what it means – I’m too tired to write another section ! I’m a total skeptic and cynic but if I’m being honest then I had the sense of being visited and/or reassured that all was well with her – wherever she might be.

  14. Did anyone else notice their family member in pain as the organs shut down? This was the case with my mother. It was very upsetting for me. We locked eyes when she took her last breath. It has haunted me since. It wasn’t peaceful.

  15. This has helped me a lot reading all of this.I lost my wife two years ago after forty eight years and i miss her everyday but you really never get over it but i guess it will get a little better as time goes by’

  16. The last thing I said to my wife was I love you and I’ll always love you. She asked me am I going to die, and I was so scared I just said I don’t know. She was 27 and we had our first baby. I held her hand when her heart stopped. I had this strange feeling like some part of her left her and went into my body.

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