Caring for someone nearing death

Your relative or friend is likely to go through some physical changes as they get close to death. They may not be able to respond to you, but it can help to talk to them, to moisten their mouth and to move them gently to keep them comfortable. Their skin tone, temperature and breathing patterns may change.

A doctor or nurse can give your relative or friend drugs to help if they feel sick, if they seem to be agitated or if their breathing becomes difficult. You can also ask them for advice.

You may want to spend time sitting quietly with your relative or friend. The last few moments of life are often very peaceful.

Nearing death

Even if your relative or friend is unable to respond, they may still be able to hear you and know you’re there.

So it can help to speak to them and let them know what you’re doing, especially if you’re giving them medicines or moving them. This may feel strange as they can’t respond, but it can be comforting for both of you. You may need to move them regularly to keep them comfortable. There may be times where not much needs to be done and you can just sit with them and be close to them.

It’s fine to call your relative or friend’s GP or specialist nurse to let them know what’s happening and to ask for advice if you need it.

Physical changes

Your relative or friend won’t usually feel thirsty at this stage but their mouth may be dry and need to be moistened. If they feel sick, anti-sickness medicines (anti-emetics) can be given by a syringe driver.

Skin and sensation changes

In the last few hours, your relative’s or friend’s hands, feet and skin may feel very cold and possibly moist. Sometimes the skin changes colour and becomes slightly more blue, grey or white. Their skin may also be very sensitive to touch. So if you move them, be very gentle and tell them what you’re doing.

Several layers of light, warm clothing and bedding can help to keep them at a comfortable temperature.


As your relative or friend gets closer to death, their breathing pattern will probably change. Their breathing may become irregular, with longer gaps between the breaths. It may also become very noisy, due to a build-up of fluid in their air passages as they are lying flat. This may be distressing for you and any other people around, but it isn’t usually distressing for the person who is dying.

If fluid does build up in the air passages, drugs can be given by injection or through a syringe driver to reduce the build-up of these secretions.

Marie Curie have produced a video about how breathing patterns change towards the end of a person's life.

Other changes

If your relative or friend is drifting in and out of consciousness, there may be times when they don’t seem to recognise you or other people around them. You may find this distressing. They may also talk to people who they knew in the past or who died long ago, probably because they are thinking of these people. If they seem restless or agitated, this can be eased by giving sedatives by injection or through a syringe driver.

Final moments

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).

Working together to create information for you

We worked with Marie Curie Cancer Care to write our End of life information.

Thank you to all of the people affected by cancer who reviewed what you're reading and have helped our information to develop.

You could help us too when you join our Cancer Voices Network.

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