Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

The physical process of dying

5-minute read

Key facts

  • When someone is dying, their heartbeat and blood circulation slow down.
  • The brain and organs receive less oxygen than they need and so work less well.
  • In the days before death, people often begin to lose control of their breathing.
  • It’s common for people to be very calm in the hours before they die.

On this page

Dying can be a gradual process, including when someone has a serious illness. If someone is receiving good care, it can be quite a peaceful time — a time during which the body lets go of life. What happens varies between people, but this article describes how people’s bodies generally change as they die.

What is the physical process of dying?

In most people who are dying, the body’s normal systems start to operate more slowly. The heart beats a little more slowly, or with a little less force, and so blood is moved around the body more slowly. This means the brain and the other organs receive less oxygen than they need, and so they do not function as well.

When the brain receives less oxygen than it should, the way the person who is dying thinks and reacts to situations is also affected. The hormones (produced by the brain) are also affected, which influences the way in which other organs function.

Back to top

What happens in the weeks before death?

Most people who are dying feel tired. They may want to sleep more often, or for longer periods. They may want to talk less, although some may want to talk more.

They may want to eat less or eat different foods since their stomach and digestive system are slowing down.

Someone who is dying may also lose weight and their skin might become thinner. The body now finds it hard to regenerate skin cells, as well as other organs, in the way it used to.

Back to top

What happens in the days before death?

In the days before their death, a person’s control over their breathing starts to fail. They may breathe more slowly for a while, then more quickly, and so their breathing becomes quite unpredictable overall. Fluid can start to gather in their lungs, and the breathing can begin to sound quite ‘rattly’. They might cough, but not very deeply.

Some people have a burst of energy in the 24 hours before they die, sitting up and talking normally for a short period.

Often, people’s skin colour changes in the days before death as the blood circulation declines. They can become paler or greyer or their skin can become mottled.

With the loss of oxygen to their brain, they might become vague and sleepy. Some people have hallucinations and talk to ‘people’ who aren’t there. Some become unconscious a few days before they die.

Back to top

What happens in the hours before death?

In the hours before death, most people fade as the blood supply to their body declines further. They sleep a lot, their breathing becomes very irregular, and their skin becomes cool to the touch.

Those who do not lose consciousness in the days before death usually do so in the hours before.

Most people are very calm at this time, although some may be agitated, especially if they are finding it hard to breathe.

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.

Back to top

What happens after someone has died?

You might feel all sorts of emotions, from grief that they are gone to relief that their pain is over, and any number of emotions in between. Take your time — it’s fine to just sit with the person who has died for as long as you need to.

If the death occurs in a hospital, nursing home or hospice, then the facility will take care of all the initial next steps for you.

Resources and support

For more information and support, try these resources:

Back to top

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2019

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Dying at Home

Many people if asked would say they want to be cared for and to die at home. Without the help and support of family or friends it can be difficult to remain at home. Sometimes even with the best plans, things change.

Read more on CareSearch website

Death & Dying - Carer Library

Find information and resources to help you care for a person with terminal illness at home and prepare for their end of life.

Read more on CarerHelp website

Understanding the dying process

Information for families to help them work through some of the difficult questions and issues around what happens when someone dies.

Read more on WA Health website

Legal - Assisted Dying - Factsheet

End of life decision-making can be challenging for everyone involved in a person’s care, and sometimes disagreements can arise. This factsheet explores what legal and other avenues are available to manage conflict that arises in aged care about medical treatment decision-making.

Read more on End of Life Directions for Aged Care ELDAC website

Pathway 3: Preparing for Dying - CarerHelp

Find practical information and resources to help you care for a person at the end of life, manage symptoms and recognise dying.

Read more on CarerHelp website

No tan is worth dying for | Cancer Council

In 2007, 26-year-old Clare Oliver died from melanoma. Read about how she visited a solarium in her early 20s and believed these impacted her diagnosis

Read more on Cancer Council Australia website

Pathway 4: When the Person Is Dying - CarerHelp

Find practical information and resources to help you to care for a dying person and manage the period immediately after death.

Read more on CarerHelp website

At the end – dying explained - Better Health Channel

Some people prefer having palliative care at home because of the familiar environment, feeling of independence and close access to family, friends and the local community.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

When your parent's cancer can't be cured - Guides | CanTeen

This book is not an instruction manual on how to feel when your parent is dying

Read more on CanTeen website

Dealing With The News of Your Sibling's Cancer | CanTeen

There is no right or wrong way to feel or act when you’ve been told your sibling is dying.

Read more on CanTeen website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo