The Scary Truth Behind What It Actually Feels Like to Die, Revealed

Your body and mind send you subtle warning signals that death is fast-approaching. You might start to notice your sense of smell isn’t what it used to be, or your bad breath just won’t go away no matter how many mints you swallow.

It’s helpful to know the signs you might die soon. But what does it actually feel like to die? Palliative care experts and near-death survivors alike offer some honest facts and possibilities.

There are several ‘types’ of death

A coffin about to be lowered at a funeral service

“Brain dead” and “clinically dead” are two different things. |

Doctors classify death into two categories (“mostly dead” not being one of them). A person is considered “brain dead” as a result of a lack of neural activity. They’re pronounced “clinically dead” when their heart, breathing, and blood circulation stops.

Next: As you die, your body’s most basic needs become irrelevant.

You stop feeling hungry

Man looking at burger

A loss of appetite is an early indication of death. |

It’s not uncommon to lose your appetite and all sense of hunger as death approaches. At that point, your body only has so much energy to focus on keeping you alive — your heartbeat, your breathing, and so on. Digestion becomes less of a priority as all your systems fight to prolong the inevitable.

Next: That’s not all your fight-or-flight response does to you.

Your body goes into ‘low-power’ mode

Young woman resting in bed. | Ridofranz/ iStock

Extreme weakness and fatigue plague the soon-to-die even when they aren’t experiencing symptoms of a different condition or illness. This causes the body to dedicate its remaining energy stores primarily to the functions that will keep you alive — like breathing and maintaining an acceptable heart rate.

Next: This isn’t just a physical side effect of dying.

So does your brain

3D brain

Your brain will stop working so diligently. |

Your brain is responsible for telling the rest of your body what to do. As you inch closer to the end, you’ll likely think a lot less about that embarrassing thing you did 15 years ago. Your brain becomes less active in an attempt to focus on the chemical signals that will keep you alive for as long as possible.

Next: First, you start to lose your sense of smell. Things go downhill from there.

You lose your senses one by one

Man is looking at the mirror

You lose your ability to speak when death is near. |

Naturally, as you get older, your senses start to dull. It’s not uncommon to need stronger reading glasses or hearing aids. Your senses are also some of the last things you lose before you die. You lose your ability to speak, then your sight. Most people lose their senses of hearing and touch last.

Next: This is why you might not be able to say goodbye to your loved ones.

You lose the ability to speak

Senior woman in hospital

Losing the ability to speak is caused by brain damage. |

The inability to speak, called aphasia, often happens to patients who have suffered brain damage. The gradual breakdown of both your body and brain, however, can have the same effect. If your brain decides communication isn’t essential for immediate survival, you won’t be able to anymore.

Next: What is a “death rattle” and does it hurt?

You experience ‘the death rattle’

Nurse With Digital Tablet Talks To Senior Patient

An accumulation of fluid can build up in your throat when you are approaching death. |

As your body weakens, fluid accumulates in your throat and chest. As a result, you make a sound as you breathe — called a “death rattle” — that’s a lot more disturbing to those around you than it is to you. Even though this might sound devastating, the person experiencing it isn’t likely in any kind of stress. It’s a physical symptom of dying, but it doesn’t hurt.

Next: This might seem obvious — but here’s what’s really going on.

You lose consciousness

MRI brain scan

When a person is close to death they will start to lose consciousness. |

Your brain relies on the various connections between neurons to function. These connections start to break down as you approach death. This isn’t anything like what happens to your consciousness right before you die — but first, things get a little dreamy.

Next: This is why people describe “dying” in such strange ways.

You enter a dream-like state

Light at the end of a tunnel

In a dream-like state you may see images like a light at the end of a tunnel. | Arsgera

Many people who have had near-death experiences admit to having dreams and visions both while awake and while unconscious. This is where imagery like seeing light at the end of a tunnel comes from. You’re on your way out, but you’re not quite gone.

Next: It’s also common to experience this as you die.

You might have an out-of-body experience

Scared and frightened man

When close to death you may feel like you are watching yourself die. |

A dream-like state might manifest as something that can only be described as an “out-of-body experience.” It might seem like you’re watching yourself die, which sounds a lot scarier than it actually is. Scientists aren’t sure exactly why this happens, but it won’t cause you any pain — quite the opposite, actually.

Next: There’s a reason people see a “bright light” when they’re about to die.

At the very end, your brain ‘wakes up’


Before death it may seem as though your brain surges back to life. | Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images

Some studies suggest there’s a surge of brain activity right before you officially die. The rats experienced heightened consciousness — brain activity similar to or even more than the activity measured while still alive. People aren’t rats, but it’s definitely something researchers will continue to study further.

Next: Your brain’s the boss — when the boss checks out, it’s all over.

Your brain stops regulating … everything

Hospital bed

Dying may feel like a relief to the body. | iStock/Getty Images

The reason dying isn’t instantaneous is because your brain and body are really good at keeping everything running as smoothly as possible. Once they’re no longer in control, everything shuts down. The good news is, you’ll probably “feel” relieved.

Next: Most near-death survivors say they felt this when they almost died.

You feel at peace

emergency room entrance

Once you are close to death you don’t feel any pain. |

People who have had near-death experiences tend to report feeling “relaxed” or “at peace.” This is likely due to both physical and psychological factors — you’re beyond the point of being able to experience fear, or much of anything unpleasant.

Doctors believe dying probably doesn’t hurt. Whether due to pain management or loss of all biological senses, by the time you’re ready to go, the point of pain has likely passed.

Next: What happens after you die? These are the most common beliefs.

Heaven, reincarnation, and other theories about ‘the afterlife’

Vegetation and trees, forest from Costa Rica

There are a lot of theories about the afterlife. | bogdanhoria/iStock/Getty Images

Theories and beliefs surrounding where you go after you die differ significantly from person to person. Some religions believe in different forms of paradise and hell. Others believe you’re born again in a different form following your death.

These beliefs, regardless of their specifics, often bring comfort to the large portion of the population terrified of dying.

Next: This is why so many people are afraid to die — and how to handle your fear.

Why we’re afraid of dying — and how to cope

Male psychologist making notes

Talking about death may help you cope with your fear. | Shironosov/iStock/Getty Images

The human body values survival above all else. It will try to fight off or counteract any threat standing in the way of that. We might dread the thought of no longer living, but that’s because we’re built to stay alive. That doesn’t make it any less scary — but you can learn to embrace the inevitable. It turns out talking about it might help you cope.

Follow The Cheat Sheet on Facebook!