What Does It Feel Like To Die? Here’s What Real Accounts Say (2023)

Humans are fascinated by death — and a lot of that fascination may stem from the fact that most of us just can’t comprehend death in its entirety. Indeed, the answer to the question “What does it feel like to die?” is largely, we don’t really know — mostly because (for what are perhaps obvious reasons) there aren’t a lot of ways to gather this information. Scientists do have some guesses, though, whether that’s through research on near-death experiences or through listening to people recount their first-hand brushes with the great hereafter.

We do know what happens to the body when you die, per research published in Nature in 2016: Your oxygen depletes, which slows your circulation, making your skin mottle and your extremities turn cold; it gets harder to breathe, and what breathing you are able to do becomes noisy (although for what it’s worth, the “death rattle,” as it’s called, isn’t thought to be painful); and when your heartbeat, breathing, and circulation stop, clinical death occurs. Biological death follows a few minutes later as your brain cells die from the lack of oxygen.

But as for what death feels like? Well, a lot of it depends on exactly how you die. People who die from illness, for example, aren’t typically able to describe what they’re feeling. As Margaret Campbell, a decades-long palliative caregiver and nursing professor at Wayne State University, told The Atlantic in 2016, “Roughly from the last two weeks until the last breath, somewhere in that interval, people become too sick, or too drowsy, or too unconscious to tell us what they’re experiencing.” As a result, much of the talk around death in these situations centers around what those observing it see, rather than what those experiencing it feel.

We can, however, sketch out a few things about what it feels like to die, based on the research that’s been conducted and what people who have technically died, but who have subsequently been resuscitated, can remember. According to research published in Frontiers in Neurology in 2020, between 8 and 10% of people have a near-death experience sometime in their life. Ultimately, death — like so many other things — is an extremely personal event; you might experience some of these things, all of them, or none at all.

1

You Lose Your Senses

According to palliative care specialist James Hallenbeck, who spoke with The Atlantic in 2016, something called “active dying” occurs during the final few days from someone who’s dying gradually. During this period, you tend to lose your senses in a particular order: Hunger and thirst are the first to go; then you lose the ability to speak, followed by the ability to see. Hearing and touch typically hold out a little longer, but they eventually go, too. A study published in Scientific Reports in 2020 found that hearing was usually the longest-lasting sense before death.

2

You Might Feel Like You’re Dreaming

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An AskReddit thread called for people who have been clinically dead to describe what they felt during their experience, and some said that dying felt like slipping into dreamland. A study published in 2014 in Journal of Palliative Medicine examined the dreams of people in hospice who were near death, and the overwhelming majority — about 88% — reported having extremely vivid dreams that sometimes even carried over into their waking hours. Furthermore, a lot of these dreams and visions featured loved ones who had already died. In many cases, they were comforting, rather than frightening. It’s a phenomenon known as end-of-life dreams and visions.

3

You Might Experience A Lot Of Thoughts & Feelings

The brain doesn’t exactly quiet down as people begin to die —it actually does the opposite. According to research from 2013 published in PNAS, the brain experiences a surge of activity right before death. That’s what might be responsible for common elements of near-death experiences: you might perceive past memories, or a bright light that you’re heading towards, or even your consciousness leaving your own body. Lead study author Jimo Borjigin, Ph.D., told the BBC, “A lot of people thought that the brain after clinical death was inactive or hypoactive, with less activity than the waking state, and we show that is definitely not the case. If anything, it is much more active during the dying process than even with the waking state.”

4

Your Life May Not “Flash” Before Your Eyes

If people are asked what it feels like to die, they might say they expect their life to flash before their eyes. But it turns out that memories just before death might not be flashes at all.

A study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2020 found that the memories people saw during near-death experiences weren’t “flashbulb memories,” or quick snapshots of moments in the past. They weren’t your standard reminiscences, either. People who’d come close to death said they’d seen memories with huge amounts of detail and information — much more than they could recall while awake, in lab conditions. So while you may see things from your past, it could be more like a rich, multi-layered movie of your life than a few brief flashes.

5

You Might Still Be Aware Of What’s Going On Around You

According to research published in Resuscitation Journal in 2014, participants in a study examining what people experienced during the period of time in which they were officially “dead” reported “a perception of awareness” — that is, their brains were still functional — enough for some, in fact, to be able to hear conversations and see events occurring around them which were later confirmed by people who were conscious and present at the time.

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6

It Might Be Painful

If a traumatic physical injury or an allergic reaction is the cause of death, you might expect it to hurt. San Francisco writer and activist Cris Gutierrez died of pancreatic cancer on Aug. 4, 2013, and wrote about it as it happened. She wrote about the pain that has resulted from areas of her body shutting down from the cancer, or from complications from it. She talked about the mental frustration of not being able to do all of the things she wanted to do. “But for myself, tragedy, anguish — these have no room, in my heart. I just want to die in not too much pain, surrounded by the ones I love. I want to help them find what peace they can in the time remaining. And if you want to give me a special going away present, spread the word about the BCRA gene. Save some lives.”

(Video) Boxing legend Mike Tyson says he feels like he is getting close to DEATH!

7

You Might Feel Surprisingly OK

In 1957, herpetologist Karl Patterson Schmidt was bitten by a poisonous snake. He didn’t realize the bite would kill him about a day later, but he was interested in tracking the symptoms he experienced. Over the course of the next day, he kept a diary of what he experienced. He recorded his observations in a clinical fashion, writing that he experienced “strong chill and shaking,” “bleeding of mucous membranes in the mouth,” and “slight bleeding … going on in the bowels.” But interestingly, he seems to have felt kind of… OK. On his last day alive, he apparently felt well enough to call the museum he worked at and told them he’d be back the next day. Unfortunately, though, he didn’t make it that long; his condition deteriorated fast, and he died not too much later.

8

If You’re Imaginative, It Might Be An Intense Experience

It’s tough to know exactly what happens when you die, as opposed to what everybody else might feel. But research on peoples’ near-death experiences sheds a light on how your personality might shape your death. A study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry in 2018 found that people who had “fantasy proneness” — that is, they spent a lot of time making up stories in their head — tended to report much more intense near-death experiences than people with less active imaginations.

The scientists used a method called the Greyson NDE (near-death experience) Scale, created by a NDE researcher called Bruce Greyson, to measure how people responded to their brushes with death. They suggested that really imaginative folks might be very perceptive about their internal states as they die, and pick up on things like emotional shifts that others might not.

9

You Might Get Dizzy

In 2012, footballer (or soccer player, for Americans) Fabrice Muamba suffered a heart attack in the middle of a game, was clinically dead for a time, and was successfully resuscitated. In an interview with The Guardian two years later, he spoke of what he could remember — which wasn’t much. He felt dizzy, which is a common experience for people who have heart attacks, per Penn Medicine, and he thinks he had double vision, but that’s all he knows.

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10

You Might Feel Nothing At All

After Muamba experienced the dizziness and double vision, he said he just felt… nothing. It wasn’t positive, really, but it wasn’t painful or negative, either. There are many questions about the “active dying” those who are dying gradually experience: Without your senses, what do you really feel?

Death still is — and will likely remain for some time — the undiscovered country, but although much of it is a mystery, we're still doing what we can to unravel it. We may not know much, but what we do know is at least something. Right?

Studies cited:

Blundon, E.G., Gallagher, R.E. & Ward, L.M. Electrophysiological evidence of preserved hearing at the end of life. Sci Rep10, 10336 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-67234-9

Borjigin, J., Lee, U., Liu, T., Pal, D., Huff, S., Klarr, D., Sloboda, J., Hernandez, J., Wang, M. M., & Mashour, G. A. (2013). Surge of neurophysiological coherence and connectivity in the dying brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110(35), 14432–14437. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1308285110

Cassol, H., Bonin, E., Bastin, C., Puttaert, N., Charland-Verville, V., Laureys, S., & Martial, C. (2020). Near-Death Experience Memories Include More Episodic Components Than Flashbulb Memories. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 888. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00888

van Esch, H. J., Lokker, M. E., Rietjens, J., van Zuylen, L., van der Rijt, C., & van der Heide, A. (2020). Understanding relatives' experience of death rattle. BMC psychology, 8(1), 62. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40359-020-00431-3

Javan, G., Finley, S., Can, I. et al. Human Thanatomicrobiome Succession and Time Since Death. Sci Rep6, 29598 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep29598

Kerr, C. W., Donnelly, J. P., Wright, S. T., Kuszczak, S. M., Banas, A., Grant, P. C., & Luczkiewicz, D. L. (2014). End-of-life dreams and visions: a longitudinal study of hospice patients' experiences. Journal of palliative medicine, 17(3), 296–303. https://doi.org/10.1089/jpm.2013.0371

Kondziella D. (2020). The Neurology of Death and the Dying Brain: A Pictorial Essay. Frontiers in neurology, 11, 736. https://doi.org/10.3389/fneur.2020.00736

Martial, C., Cassol, H., Charland-Verville, V., Merckelbach, H., & Laureys, S. (2018). Fantasy Proneness Correlates With the Intensity of Near-Death Experience. Frontiers in psychiatry, 9, 190. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00190

Parnia, S., Spearpoint, K., de Vos, G., Fenwick, P., Goldberg, D., Yang, J., Zhu, J., Baker, K., Killingback, H., McLean, P., Wood, M., Zafari, A. M., Dickert, N., Beisteiner, R., Sterz, F., Berger, M., Warlow, C., Bullock, S., Lovett, S., McPara, R. M., … Schoenfeld, E. R. (2014). AWARE-AWAreness during REsuscitation-a prospective study. Resuscitation, 85(12), 1799–1805. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resuscitation.2014.09.004

(Video) They'll say ANYTHING to get you back 🙄 they feel ENTITLED to your LOVE‼️

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FAQs

What happen immediately after death? ›

Decomposition begins several minutes after death with a process called autolysis, or self-digestion. Soon after the heart stops beating, cells become deprived of oxygen, and their acidity increases as the toxic by-products of chemical reactions begin to accumulate inside them.

What happens in the last minutes before death? ›

In time, the heart stops and they stop breathing. Within a few minutes, their brain stops functioning entirely and their skin starts to cool. At this point, they have died.

What does it feel like to know you're dying? ›

The dying person will feel weak and sleep a lot. When death is very near, you might notice some physical changes such as changes in breathing, loss of bladder and bowel control and unconsciousness. It can be emotionally very difficult to watch someone go through these physical changes.

When someone is dying do they know? ›

They Know They're Dying

Dying is a natural process that the body has to work at. Just as a woman in labor knows a baby is coming, a dying person may instinctively know death is near. Even if your loved one doesn't discuss their death, they most likely know it is coming.

What is the place called before you go to heaven? ›

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that there is a place where sins are punished and a soul is purified before it can go to Heaven. This is called Purgatory .

What is the last breath before death called? ›

Agonal breathing or agonal gasps are the last reflexes of the dying brain. They are generally viewed as a sign of death, and can happen after the heart has stopped beating.

What hospice does not tell you? ›

Hospice providers are very honest and open, but hospice cannot tell you when the patient will die. This is not because they don't want to, it's because they can't always determine it.

Can you hear before death? ›

In a June 2020 groundbreaking study published in Scientific Reports, neuroscientists provided the first empirical evidence that some people can still hear while in an unresponsive state hours before dying.

How long does hearing last after death? ›

"Our data shows that a dying brain can respond to sound, even in an unconscious state, up to the last hours of life." This new insight into the dying brain's response to sound can help family and friends bring comfort to a person in their final moments.

What is the burst of energy before death called? ›

This difficult time may be complicated by a phenomenon known as the surge before death, or terminal lucidity, which can happen days, hours, or even minutes before a person's passing. Often occurring abruptly, this period of increased energy and alertness may give families false hope that their loved ones will recover.

What happens week before death? ›

1 to 2 weeks before death, the person may feel tired and drained all the time, so much that they don't leave their bed. They could have: Different sleep-wake patterns. Little appetite and thirst.

What are the signs of last days of life? ›

End-of-Life Signs: The Final Days and Hours
  • Breathing difficulties. Patients may go long periods without breathing, followed by quick breaths. ...
  • Drop in body temperature and blood pressure. ...
  • Less desire for food or drink. ...
  • Changes in sleeping patterns. ...
  • Confusion or withdraw.

Can people hear you while dying? ›

Scientists found that the brains of "actively dying" patients in palliative care (some unresponsive, some still responsive) still registered activity in response to sounds. The patterns of activity were similar to those seen in a sample of healthy controls, suggesting that people still hear as they die.

Why does a dying person have their mouth open? ›

Their jaw will relax and their mouth will be slightly open. There may be a release from the bowel or bladder. Because it is an expected death, there is no need to call police or 911. If you do call 911, the police will have to come as part of the response.

Can you still hear after dying? ›

“Our data shows that a dying brain can respond to sound, even in an unconscious state, up to the last hours of life.” This new insight into the dying brain's response to sound can help family and friends bring comfort to a person in their final moments.

Where does God sit in heaven? ›

The New Testament continues Jewish identification of heaven itself as the "throne of God", but also locates the throne of God as "in heaven" and having a secondary seat at the right hand of God for the Session of Christ.

How long do you stay in purgatory? ›

A Spanish theologian from the late Middle Ages once argued that the average Christian spends 1000 to 2000 years in purgatory (according to Stephen Greenblatt's Hamlet in Purgatory).

Who goes to purgatory? ›

Purgatory is the state of those who die in God's friendship, assured of their eternal salvation, but who still have need of purification to enter into the happiness of heaven.

What does a tear mean when someone dies? ›

This cloth is called a tear cloth. A few days, up to minutes before death, a tear may form in the eyes of a person who is passing away. This tear is significant in that the patient may not be able to talk, and this final tear is a way of saying goodbye, not the emotional crying that comes from both eyes.

Why does the body gasp after death? ›

Agonal breathing is when someone who is not getting enough oxygen is gasping for air. It is usually due to cardiac arrest or stroke. It's not true breathing. It's a natural reflex that happens when your brain is not getting the oxygen it needs to survive.

What is the most common time of death? ›

There's even a circadian rhythm of death, so that in the general population people tend on average to be most likely to die in the morning hours. Sometime around 11 am is the average time,” says Saper.

Does hospice care change diapers? ›

The hospice team also teaches the family how to properly care for the patient – such as changing adult diapers, bathing the patient and preparing the right meals according to the patient's recommended diet plan.

Does hospice withhold food and water? ›

It's simply part of the dying process. A person's need for food and water are significantly less than those of an active, healthy person. Hospice care does not deny a patient food or drink. If someone has the desire to eat or drink, there are no restrictions on doing so.

Why do doctors push hospice? ›

Hospice Care: Doctors Are Overoptimistic

The recommendation for hospice care is usually made when a person is diagnosed with a terminal illness and their life expectancy is less than six months. Hospice care can sometimes be given to people who only need a few days to live, but others can live for a year or more.

What do the last hours of life look like? ›

In the last hours before dying a person may become very alert or active. This may be followed by a time of being unresponsive. You may see blotchiness and feel cooling of the arms and legs. Their eyes will often be open and not blinking.

How long can end of life last? ›

The end-of-life period—when body systems shut down and death is imminent—typically lasts from a matter of days to a couple of weeks. Some patients die gently and tranquilly, while others seem to fight the inevitable. Reassuring your loved one it is okay to die can help both of you through this process.

Can a person hear you while on life support? ›

Many studies have been conducted in critical care units to support the importance of communication with patients, and the positive outcomes of the patient healing as a result of communication. So, if you ask if your loved one can hear you, the answer is YES!

How do you connect with someone who passed away? ›

Communicating with, or about, a loved one who has died.

It is still possible to communicate with or about a loved one after they have died. This can include writing them letters, sharing stories about them with close relations or strangers who ask, or speaking to them directly.

What does the death rattle sound like? ›

It may be a crackling, wet noise that is amplified as the person breathes. In other cases, it may sound like a soft moaning with each breath, or a very loud gurgling or snoring. While the sound may be unpleasant, the person emitting the death rattle usually feels no pain or discomfort.

How long does brain live after death? ›

About six minutes after the heart stops, the brain essentially dies.

What happens in the hours before death? ›

Hours Before Death Symptoms

In the final hours of life, your loved one's body will begin to shut down. Their circulatory and pulmonary systems will slowly begin to fail. This may lead to falling body temperatures, but may also cause sudden outbursts.

What are the signs of last hours before death? ›

  • Loss of consciousness. Many people lose consciousness near the end of life. ...
  • Changes to skin. Their skin might look slightly blue or become mottled (have different coloured blotches or patches). ...
  • Noisy breathing. ...
  • Shallow or irregular breathing. ...
  • Film: What to expect at the end of life.
11 May 2022

Do you stop peeing at end of life? ›

At the end of life, urine output may decrease significantly or stop altogether. These symptoms are caused by reduced fluid intake and kidney function. In some cases, a catheter may be appropriate for preventing urinary retention, obstruction and skin breakdown, which can be very uncomfortable and trigger agitation.

How long can a hospice patient live without food or water? ›

So, how long can you live without food in hospice? According to a study, a person cannot survive more than 8 to 21 days without taking any food or water. If the patient is terminally ill, he may live within a few days or hours after stopping any food or water intake.

How do doctors know how long you have left to live? ›

Q: How does a doctor determine a patient's prognosis? Dr. Byock: Doctors typically estimate a patient's likelihood of being cured, their extent of functional recovery, and their life expectancy by looking at studies of groups of people with the same or similar diagnosis.

Why do hospice patients sleep so much? ›

This lack of wakefulness is because their body's metabolism is becoming weaker. Without metabolic energy, a person will sleep a lot more. If a person is caring for a dying loved one who is sleepy, they should make them comfortable and let them sleep.

How long can a bedridden person live without food and water? ›

If you stop eating and drinking, death can occur as early as a few days, though for most people, approximately ten days is the average. In rare instances, the process can take as long as several weeks.

What body part shuts down first when dying? ›

The brain is the first organ to begin to break down, and other organs follow suit. Living bacteria in the body, particularly in the bowels, play a major role in this decomposition process, or putrefaction.

How do eyes look before death? ›

Their eyes might be glassy or 'milky' and may be open or shut. Sometimes their pupils are unresponsive so are fixed and staring. Their extremities may feel hot or cold to our touch, and sometimes their nails might have a bluish tinge.

What does urine look like at end of life? ›

The kidneys often gradually stop producing urine as death nears. As a result, your urine will become dark brown or dark red. Also, the amount of urine produced by the kidneys decreases. As your appetite decreases, your bowel habits may also change.

What should you not do when someone dies? ›

Top 10 Things Not to Do When Someone Dies
  • 1 – DO NOT tell their bank. ...
  • 2 – DO NOT wait to call Social Security. ...
  • 3 – DO NOT wait to call their Pension. ...
  • 4 – DO NOT tell the utility companies. ...
  • 5 – DO NOT give away or promise any items to loved ones. ...
  • 6 – DO NOT sell any of their personal assets. ...
  • 7 – DO NOT drive their vehicles.
13 Apr 2019

Is it painful when the soul leaves the body? ›

He said, “When the soul leaves the body, it can take a long time or it can happen very quickly. No matter how, it is painful. It is painful for the one who is dying, and it is painful for those who are left behind. The separation of the soul from the body, that is the ending of life.

What happens in the last minutes before death? ›

In time, the heart stops and they stop breathing. Within a few minutes, their brain stops functioning entirely and their skin starts to cool. At this point, they have died.

Can a person come alive after death? ›

Although it may seem like some people come back to life after dying, someone with Lazarus syndrome experiences their circulation returning spontaneously after their heart stops beating. The syndrome is very rare and only happens after CPR is performed.

How soon after death do you poop? ›

You May Poop and Pee Your Pants

While rigor mortis sets in eventually, as soon as you die, every muscle in your body relaxes. That includes the sphincters that are in charge of keeping your bladder and bowels on lockdown, says Jorgenson. So if there is anything to expel, it could possibly seep out.

How long can the human body move after death? ›

Dead bodies keep moving for more than a year after death, new study finds. Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead. Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.

Can a dead person hear? ›

Summary: Hearing is widely thought to be the last sense to go in the dying process. Now, the first study to investigate hearing in palliative care patients who are close to death provides evidence that some may still be able to hear while in an unresponsive state.

Can a person come back to life after being embalmed? ›

A man in Mississippi whom the coroner had declared dead on Wednesday came back to life once he was put on an embalming table. Nope. We're not kidding, and the county coroner and local sheriff have verified the story for news outlets.

What is the death rattle? ›

A death rattle is produced when the patient is near death and is too weak or hypersomnolent to clear or swallow pharyngeal secretions; even small volumes of secretions will produce sounds in the resonant pharyngeal space. Death rattle usually becomes audible 24 to 48 hours before death (6,7).

Why do they cover the legs in a casket? ›

Though covering the legs during a funeral is a unique burial ritual, in reality, it stems from your preferences in holding the ceremony for the deceased. All caskets do not cover legs, and you can plump for a half-couch(half open) or full-couch(full open) one, depending on how you wish to show the body in the casket.

What color does blood turn after death? ›

Livor mortis, also known as post-mortem lividity or post-mortem hypostasis, refers to the pooling of blood in the lower portion, or dependent parts, of the body after death. This results in a dark purple discoloration of the skin.

What does a buried body look like after 1 year? ›

If you were able to view a body after one year of burial, you may see as little as the skeleton laid to rest in the soil or as much as the body still recognizable with all the clothes intact.

Does the body feel pain during cremation? ›

Does the body feel pain during cremation? A body is dead when cremated. Pain cannot be felt because there are no nerve impulses.

Where do people go after death? ›

There is an eternal life that follows after death, so when a person dies their soul moves on to another world. On the Day of Resurrection the soul will be returned to a new body and people will stand before God for judgement.

How long does a body last in a coffin? ›

By 50 years in, your tissues will have liquefied and disappeared, leaving behind mummified skin and tendons. Eventually these too will disintegrate, and after 80 years in that coffin, your bones will crack as the soft collagen inside them deteriorates, leaving nothing but the brittle mineral frame behind.

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