What can I expect when death is near?
There are some common things that happen as part of the dying process. At this stage, the person who is dying is often unaware of many of these symptoms, but it can help those who care for them if they know what to expect. While it’s a difficult thing to think about, we’re going to take a direct look at what happens when someone is near to dying.
What are the signs that someone is close to death?
As the end of life gets nearer the body starts to slow down and show signs that an illness might be entering its final stage. Common changes in the last weeks and days include:
Wanting to eat and drink less
People are unlikely to want extra food at this time and, as a result, the dying person might look quite different to how they used to.
It’s fine if they don’t want anything at all – sometimes people stop eating days or even a couple of weeks before they die.
A dying person might also have trouble eating and swallowing, but a healthcare team can help with this.
Sleeping more and becoming semi-unconscious
People who are dying may become drowsy and sleep more of the time. Though, it may be that the person can still hear.
People who are towards the end of their life may be asleep or semi-conscious in this way for two to three days, or sometimes longer.
Changes in breathing
Breathing can become more difficult and strained, or breaths take on a pattern where they become more rapid, then slow down. There might be long moments when they don’t breathe.
Breathing can also become quite noisy and make a rattling sound. While it can be alarming, this sound is caused by a build-up of fluid at the back of the throat.
Cold hands and feet
Someone who’s dying will become colder because the body isn’t regulating temperature as well as it used to.
Withdrawing from the outside world
As people become close to death they often seem less in touch with what is going on around them. So they may talk less and have trouble concentrating, or won’t be able to do things they would normally do.
Some people become quite calm and detached. They look inward, and become less concerned with the world around them. For others, it can become harder to concentrate. It’s also possible to become confused or disoriented, restless and agitated.
Mental changes at the end of life
At some point people can become delirious, saying things that don’t make sense to others, or seeing or hearing things that aren’t there.
At the end, some people lose consciousness for the final days or hours, as part of the natural process of dying.
Help and Support
Marie Curie has information pages for those who are living with a terminal illness
Macmillan Cancer Support has a Monday to Friday phone line as well as online information and support
We have more links for support, including counselling and therapies, over at our Help and Support page.