What Happens to the Eyes of a Dying Person?

The appearance of someone's eyes can change just before death. Here's what to expect and why the changes happen.

Updated April 11, 2024
Daughter visiting her senior mother in hospital

We know how difficult it is to sit with a loved one who's dying. As they near the end of their life, especially if they have a terminal illness or are in hospice, it's natural to want to watch them more closely for signs of impending death. And while the eyes of a dying person won't actually change color before or after death, the appearance of the eyes can change. So it could look like they have milky eyes, glassy eyes, or their eyes are turning grey. 

Eye Changes Before Death

Along with other physical and mental shifts that can occur right before dying, someone's eyes can go through a few changes. 

Glassy Eyes

While it doesn't happen to everyone who's dying, many people who are very close to dying experience overly watery eyes. This can make the eyes appear glassy, and they could produce tears.  

Unfocused Eyes

Hours to moments before death, eyes may be slightly open but appear not to focus on anything. In a person who was previously alert, this may cause the eyes to look different than they have in the past. Additionally, they may have partially closed eyes, or their eyes may even be fully closed.

Milky Eyes

The eyes typically don't appear milky or gray before death unless the person has cataracts or another eye condition that causes corneal opacity — a condition in which the cornea loses its transparency. Even without a condition that affects the eyes, however, corneal opacity will happen after death in every person.

Related: What Happens in Hospice on a Typical Day?

Eye Changes After Passing Away

After passing away, the eyes go through several predictable changes. These shifts can help narrow down the time of death if the individual didn't die in a hospital or hospice care.

Corneal Opacity

Corneal opacity can help determine an individual's time of death. It usually starts a few hours after someone dies and increases over time. By measuring opacity, it's possible to estimate the time of death.

Eye Color Changes

Some people report that they notice their loved one's eyes change colors after they've died. Many compare it to the color of a newborn child's eyes — a dark blue. Unlike some newborns, whose eyes are blue due to the amount of melanin present at birth, the eyes of someone who has died will look blue or grayish because of corneal opacity. While the actual color of the iris doesn't change, a hazy film forms over the eyeball which can give it a blue or gray appearance.

Kevorkian Sign and Debris

Another change you may notice after death is known as the Kevorkian sign, which can occur minutes to hours after death. The Kevorkian sign is the fragmenting of blood vessels and can give the eye a bloody sort of appearance. Dust deposits can accumulate in the sclera, the white of the eye, and lead to a yellowing appearance in the corners of the eye, as well.

Pupil Enlargement

After someone dies, the pupils enlarge as the body relaxes and loses oxygen. Constricted pupils require muscle activation, so after death, the pupil ( the area of the eye that dictates the amount of light let through) relaxes and opens. Pupils will also be fixed and not reactive to light. This is why individuals may shine a light into somebody's eyes to check to see if their pupils are reactive. If they are reactive, one can surmise that there is some brain functioning. If they aren't reactive, and other signs of death are confirmed, the individual may be pronounced dead.

Understanding When Eyes Change Their Appearance

Right before dying and after they have passed, how a person's eyes look will change. Knowing these changes can help you understand what's happening as your loved one dies. 

What Happens to the Eyes of a Dying Person?