Life

What Death Feels Like, According To Research & Real Accounts

#6: You might feel surprisingly OK.

A cemetery filled with cross grave markers. How does it feel to die? Real accounts shed light on wha...
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Updated: 
Originally Published: 

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

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.

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.”

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.

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