Caring for someone nearing death

Your relative or friend is likely to go through some physical changes as they get close to death. Their skin tone, temperature and breathing patterns may change. You can help to keep them comfortable by moistening their mouth and gently changing their position. They may not be able to respond to you, but they may still be able to hear you and know you’re there.

A doctor or nurse can give your relative or friend drugs to help with any symptoms they may have. They can also give you advice and support.

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

Information for relatives and friends

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

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 help and 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 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.

Breathing

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 at times and perhaps quicker breathing at other times. 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.

You may find it helpful to watch Marie Curie have produced a Marie Curie's film guide for carers about changes in breathing towards the end of 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 of life

For most people, the final moments of life are very peaceful. Their breathing may become even slower and more irregular with very long pauses between each breath. Their tummy (abdominal) muscles may take over control of the breathing from the chest muscles, so that their tummy rises and falls with each breath.

Finally, they will stop breathing altogether. This may seem to take a long time for some people. For others, it will only be a few minutes. Sometimes it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact moment of death. Often, the person’s body will relax completely and they may look very peaceful. Some people feel they can sense when the person has died.

In some cultures, there’s a belief that the person’s consciousness (mind or soul) stays around the body for some time after death. Other people feel that their consciousness moves on quickly to another place. Some people believe that life just ends and nothing is left of the person’s mind or 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.

Back to Understanding what will happen

The last few weeks of life

During the last few weeks of life, you may have emotional and physical changes. Your healthcare team can help you cope with these.

Nearing death

Although death is a normal process, it is natural to worry about what will happen.