The dying process

The dying process is unique to each individual but in many cases there are common
characteristics or changes that help us to know that a person is dying. There are many changes that happen to people as they start to die.

There are four main changes you may see:


Reduced need for food and drink

When someone starts to die, their body no longer has the same need for food and drink as before. The body’s metabolism slows down and the body can’t digest food very well or take the goodness from it. People stop drinking, and although their mouth may look dry, it’s not a sign they are dehydrated. Gently moistening the mouth with a damp sponge and applying lip salve will give comfort.


Withdrawing from the world

For most, the process of ‘withdrawal from the world’ is a gradual one. People spend more and more time asleep, and when they are awake they are often drowsy, and show less interest in what is going on around them. This natural process can be accompanied by feelings of calmness and tranquility. The dying process is unique to each individual.

It can be hard to accept these changes, even when you know that the person is dying, as it’s a physical sign that they are not going to get better. Nevertheless, you can still show that you care about your loved one by spending time with them, talking to them and giving comfort through your presence.


Changes in breathing

Towards the end of life, as the body becomes less active, the demand for oxygen lessens. People who suffer from breathlessness are often concerned that they may die fighting for breath, but in many cases breathing eases as they start to die. Of course, breathing problems can be made worse by feelings of anxiety. The knowledge that someone is close at hand is reassuring; it can be a real help in preventing breathlessness caused by anxiety. So just sitting quietly and holding your loved one’s hand can make a real difference.

Occasionally in the last hours of life there can be a noisy rattle to the breathing. This is due to a build up of mucus in the chest, because the person no longer has the energy to cough. Medication may be used to reduce it and changes of position may also help. The noisy breathing can be upsetting to carers but it doesn’t appear to distress the dying person.


Changes which occur before death

When death is minutes or hours away, the breathing pattern may change again. Sometimes there are long pauses between breaths, or the abdominal muscles (stomach) will take over the work – the abdomen rises and falls instead of the chest. If breathing appears laboured, please remember that this is likely to be more distressing to you than it is to the person dying.

Some people may become more agitated as death approaches. The skin can become pale and moist and slightly cool prior to death.

Most people do not rouse from sleep, but die peacefully, comfortably and quietly, and are reassured by the presence of family and friends.


How we can help?

This is likely to be a difficult and painful time for you as you lose someone you have cared for. It can be hard to know what to say, how to help or what to do. Your Nurse Specialist, doctor and other healthcare professionals are there to help you work through your worries and concerns and to offer you care and support.