Signs that death is near
There are certain signs in the last few weeks, days and sometimes hours of life that indicate when someone is preparing to die. Recognising what these are will help you to say those important goodbyes, and prepare yourself for what is to come.
When someone starts to die, these are the signs that indicate death is nearing:
● Physical changes: in older people, skin can become paper-thin and pale, with dark liver spots appearing on hands, feet and face. Hair can also thin and the person may shrink in stature. Teeth can discolour or develop dark stains.
● Their external world begins to diminish until the dying person no longer wants to leave the house or their bed and may not want to talk very much. Their mood, character and behaviour may change. For example, some may become uncharacteristically anxious. Others who have held atheist views may suddenly want to explore religious or spiritual teachings.
● Increased sleep: the person begins to sleep for long periods. This can be distressing for relatives, but it’s important to understand that even the mildest physical exertion for someone approaching death can be exhausting, and for the moment all effort is being put into staying alive. Nearer the end, the dying person may increasingly drift in and out of consciousness.
● Appetite reduces: the body knows it no longer needs fuel to keep it going so those who are dying often lose their desire to eat or drink. They can begin to lose weight, sometimes rapidly. It’s important not to force food or drink onto someone who no longer wants it. But do take guidance from the nursing staff.
● Changes of expression: the person may start to talk about ‘leaving’,‘flying’, ‘going home’, ‘being taken home’, ‘being collected’, ‘going on holiday’ or making some kind of journey. They may also begin to express heart-felt gratitude to their carers and to their family as a preparation to say their farewells.
● Special requests: the dying person may want something special such as to visit a particular place, or to be surrounded by their favourite flowers. They may want to hear certain music, to have family photographs nearby or to make contact with someone who has been important in their lives.
- Understanding death and dying
- Practicalities to think about when someone is dying
- At the bedside
- Coping with family dynamics when someone is dying
- Further information and support
This content has been funded by Macmillan Cancer Support. It was commissioned as part of Find Me Help, Dying Matters' new online search tool which gives access to a comprehensive database of national and local organisations providing support and advice for people coping with death, dying and bereavement.