The Sequential Shutdown of Senses as Death Draws Near

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Knowing what happens when we die is a process which science struggles to empirically verify. Despite this, scientists still conduct as much research as they can and have found that for most people who die a natural death, their senses shut down in a specific order. Here is what happens when a person dies and in what order their senses will begin to fail. 

What Happens When You Die?

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When a person is dying, their body begins to shut down the vital organs and senses. For natural deaths, there is a specific order in which the senses begin to fail. For friends and family of the dying person, it is helpful to understand the process as it can help with grief and alleviate some of the uncertainty present when a loved one is passing away. 

Your Senses Shut Down in a Specific Order

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A natural death is a slower process than other kinds of deaths; as living organisms, we age, and there comes a point where the body can no longer function efficiently enough to keep us alive. The body recognizes its inability to provide for us, and it slowly begins to shut itself down in a specific order. 

Appetite

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A dying person will begin to lose their appetite, and it is the first sign that death is approaching; they will also not be as thirsty. They may still appreciate the occasional bite of something to eat or a cold drink, but they won’t be able to or want to eat a full meal or drink an entire glass of water.

Why You Lose Your Appetite

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Food and drink provide us with nutrients and vitamins which keep the body functioning. Much like a highly functioning machine, it can’t run without some kind of power source. As we die, the body is not functioning to the same level as it would have been previously, so it doesn’t need to be constantly fed or hydrated. 

Speech

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As the body begins to shut down, speech is the next function to go. Speaking requires energy and the body’s energy sources have been depleted. The dying person may also be aware of their situation and might not feel a need to communicate. It may seem like they are detached from reality, but they still maintain consciousness and awareness of people and noises around them.

Why the Ability to Speak is Lost

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Speaking will become a chore for a dying person. Even when you are a healthy adult, there are times when you don’t have the energy to speak. While in the process of dying, it feels incredibly draining. There will be a temptation to try and ask them questions so you hear them speak. You must remember that they will be having the realization that death is imminent and are beginning to detach themselves from their surroundings.

Vision

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A person’s sight is the next sense to deteriorate. It may not fully fail, but they will only be able to see things that are very close to them. It is also common for dying people to hallucinate. As the body is lacking in nutrients and also dehydrated, it is not functioning properly, which causes hallucinations. 

Why Vision Fails

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Being able to see and interpret what you see takes up a lot of energy from your brain and body. The body as a whole is no longer being given sufficient nutrition, so it will start to shut down functions that are no longer essential to stay alive. 

Touch

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In the final moments before death, touch is the penultimate sense to stop working. Before this, the patient would have been semi-conscious and able to know if someone was holding their hand or stroking their hair. In the last stages, they fall into a state of unconsciousness and can’t sense if they are being touched or held. 

Why Physical Touch Fails

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As death approaches, the body is in an almost comatose state where it is only just managing to keep all vital organs and senses running. Being able to feel something close or touching you is a vital part of the body’s survival instinct. As the body now knows it is failing, there is little need to keep maintaining the senses which keep us safe. 

Hearing 

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Hearing is the very last sense to go; this may give some comfort to those close to the person dying. They can still hear until the very last moments before death, so you can be reassured that they are able to listen to your final words. 

Why is Hearing the Last Sense to Fail

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It is not understood why hearing is the last sense to fail, but there have been experiments which have shown that the ability to hear remains right up until death. The brain will not be functioning the same as a fully conscious person, but a dying person is still able to hear sounds, so a final few words are not wasted. 

Some Patients Will Rally

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Some but not all dying people experience a slight rally before their condition terminally deteriorates. This can be unsettling for their loved ones as it will give the appearance of an improvement in their condition. 

Why Do They Rally?

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This rally is poorly understood, but there are theories which suggest that when the body starts to shut down certain organs, they release steroids, which give the patient a sudden burst of energy. It could also be a psychological aspect where the body knows it will soon have to shut itself down and is allowing the conscious self to have closure by saying goodbye to loved ones. 

Comforting the Dying

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When someone is dying, you are put in a difficult position of not knowing what they can and can’t understand. Your presence alone is enough, and they will be able to sense that until the end. Keep the room as quiet as possible, but you can still say your goodbyes, as they will be able to hear right until the end. 

Coping With a Loved One's Death

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It is natural to try and hold yourself together as best as possible for the sake of the person dying; when they’ve gone, make sure you don’t forget to take care of your feelings. It’s important to talk about the specific experience of being in a room as they pass away. Grief takes a long time to process but it does become easier over time if you take the right steps

Is Death Painful?

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It is unlikely to be painful when someone is dying. If they are in a hospital or other place of care, then they will be given medication which will take away all pain. These medications are only stopped when doctors are sure the patient is unable to feel pain and their senses have stopped working.

A Process it is Important to Understand

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Understanding the process of death helps to make it more comfortable for the person dying; it also allows their loved ones to prepare themselves for a difficult and emotional situation. By knowing in what order the senses begin to fail, there is comfort in the fact that the patient can hear right up until death, and the voices of friends and family can soothe them in their passing.  

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