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As people get close to death, there comes a time when they feel very weak and aren’t able to get out of bed at all. From needing to sleep and rest a lot, people move into a phase where their sleep becomes deeper and they spend time drifting in and out of consciousness.
At times they may become confused, and not recognise you or their family or friends. This can be upsetting if you aren’t expecting it. They may also hear or see things which aren’t there (hallucinations). The drowsiness and confusion can be due to the chemical changes that are happening in their body and a build-up of waste chemicals (toxins). The changes may sometimes be partly due to the medicines that they need to keep them comfortable.
The person’s feet and hands may feel cold, or their skin may feel very sensitive to touch. People looking after them may need to be very gentle when moving or touching them.
The drowsiness and sleepiness usually gradually develops into a phase where the person becomes unconscious and can’t respond at all to anything around them. They may seem to be peacefully asleep or may move, twitch or grimace occasionally as though they are dreaming. Although they won’t be able to respond to people around them at this time, it’s likely that they will be aware that you’re there and be able to hear you if you talk to them.
This phase may last only a few hours or can continue for a few days. At this stage, food and drink aren’t necessary as their body no longer needs them. Moistening their lips or mouth is all that’s needed. Once a person stops drinking, they usually only live for a few days.
If a person isn’t moving around, the fluid normally produced by their lungs isn’t able to drain away and may collect in the air passages. When they breathe, they make a slight groaning (rattling) noise. This can be upsetting for you, but doesn’t seem to be uncomfortable for the dying person themselves. Their breathing may also become irregular, with long gaps between the breaths.
The final moments of life are very peaceful for most people, as their breathing gradually slows and becomes irregular before it stops. With some people this seems to take a long time, while for others it happens over a few minutes.
It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact moment of death. Often the person’s body will relax completely and their face will look very peaceful. People around them often say that they can sense when the person’s consciousness has gone from the body.
In some cultures and religions, it is believed that the person’s mind (consciousness) remains around the body for some time after death. In other cultures and religions it is thought that the consciousness moves on to another place quickly. Some people believe that once the person has died there is nothing left of their mind (consciousness).
Content last reviewed: 1 March 2011
Next planned review: 2013
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