The last few days of life

In your last few days of life, you may need more help to keep you comfortable. You may need support with physical care and to manage any symptoms.

Changes at the end of life

Each person’s experience of the last few days of life will be different. It can be difficult to know exactly what will happen, or how quickly things might change. Usually, you slowly become weaker and have very little energy. But sometimes changes happen more quickly.

You may:

  • find it difficult to move and need help getting from your bed to a chair
  • need to spend most, or all, of the day in bed
  • lose interest in eating and drinking
  • sleep a lot and feel sleepy when you are awake
  • feel disorientated or confused, and unsure whether you are dreaming
  • dream about people who are not there or that you knew in the past – your mind may think about old memories
  • lose interest in your surroundings and the people around you, even your close family members, friends or partner.

These are all natural things that can happen as you approach the end of your life.

Booklets and resources

Getting support

Thinking about end of life issues can be upsetting. If you want to talk about any of the information on this page, get in touch. You can:


In many Boots pharmacies, Macmillan Information Pharmacists also offer free specialist advice and support about end-of-life care. This includes information and support about accessing medicines. You can check live stock availability on the Boots website, or download the list of pharmacies that offer the Palliative Care Service.

Physical care

You will usually need help looking after yourself. Your family, friends or a partner may want and be able to look after you at this time. But you may need the help of professional carers as well, especially if you do not have people around you to help.

Your GP, district nurse or palliative care team can arrange professional care if needed. Carers can visit you at home. They can:

  • support your family and friends in providing care for you
  • show your family and friends how to provide some aspects of your care – this could include learning how to move you safely and helping keep your mouth and lips clean and comfortable
  • provide some aspects of personal care, if you would prefer them to do this.

You will probably want to wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing. Your family, friends or partner may be comfortable washing you and changing your clothes. But if not, the district nursing team or palliative care team can show them the best way to do this. You are not likely to want to eat or drink very much, so your mouth may get dry. Lip balm can help moisten your lips.

It is important that your carers moisturise your skin and help you change your position regularly. This helps to stop your skin getting sore. Your nurses can advise your carers on how to make sure you are in a comfortable position. They may be able to arrange pressure care aids to help keep you comfortable. These include:

  • cushions for chairs
  • mattresses for beds
  • special beds with pressure-relieving mattresses.

Some people lose control of their bladder and bowel as they approach the end of life. This is normal but can be embarrassing for you and those around you. Your nurse can show you and your carers the best way to manage this so you are comfortable. You may need a tube (catheter) put into your bladder to drain urine (pee).

It may feel strange to need so much help. But you may get very close to the people who are looking after you at this time.

When you are not needing any care, you can sit or lie quietly. You may want to have your family, friends or a partner sitting with you. This can be a very intimate and special time. You may want to talk, or you may want to be quiet, watch the television or listen to music.

You may want to have someone with you all the time. Or you may prefer to have some time on your own. Tell people around you what you would like, as it will help them in planning your care.

If you are at home, your carers can contact your district nurse, community palliative care nurse or GP at any time, day or night, if they are concerned. They can discuss your care and visit to give you medicines to control your symptoms if needed.


You doctor and nurse will monitor your symptoms to make sure they are managed as well as possible. They may change your medicines, or stop some medicines if you do not need them anymore.

There are different ways of having medicines. Sometimes, instead of tablets, it is better to have them:

  • as an injection under the skin
  • through skin patches
  • as a continuous injection through a syringe pump.

‘Just-in-case’ medicines

Your GP, district nurse or the palliative care team may suggest leaving a small case or box of medicines in your home, in case you need them. These are sometimes called just-in-case medicines or anticipatory medicines. They usually include injections to help with pain, sickness, restlessness and fluid in your airways.

Getting medicines quickly can be difficult, especially at night or weekends. If you have ‘just-in-case’ medicines at home, a nurse or doctor can give them to you straight away if you need them.

Having someone with you

People often find it comforting to have someone with them. You may want to have family, friends or a partner with you. Or you may want to have a religious or spiritual adviser. There may be certain religious practices you want to be done, or prayers read. It is important to do whatever feels right for you.

Not everyone has family or friends who can be with them. In some parts of the UK, there may be volunteers who can sit with you when you are nearing the end of your life.

Soul midwife (doula)

A soul midwife is someone who can be with you as you are approaching the end of your life. A soul midwife is also called a doula or end-of-life doula. They are not medically trained, but can work with your medical team.

They can provide company and spiritual support to you and your family. They might help with practical tasks to give your carers a break. Or they can sit with you, listen to you and support you with any difficult conversations about your feelings. You usually need to pay for their services.

Nearing death

Although death is a natural process, it is normal to worry about what will happen. You may feel anxious or frightened. Or you may feel calm and peaceful.

Usually, you slip into a deep sleep where you are unconscious. You cannot be woken, but you may still be able to hear and be aware of the people around you. There might be times when you are awake and can talk, and then you slip back into unconsciousness.

The final moments

The final moments of life are usually very peaceful. Your breathing may gradually become even slower and more irregular, with very long pauses between each breath. Eventually, you will stop breathing altogether.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our advanced cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at

    Health Improvement Scotland/ NHS Scotland. Scottish Palliative Care Guidelines. Available from [accessed Nov 2021].

    NICE. Care of dying adults in the last days of life. NICE guideline NG31 [Internet]. 2015. Available from [accessed Nov 2021].

    NICE. End of life care for adults: service delivery. NICE guideline NG142 [Internet]. 2019. Available from [accessed Nov 2021].

    NICE. Improving supportive and palliative care for adults with cancer. Cancer service guideline CSG4 [Internet]. 2004. Available from [accessed Nov 2021].

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Viv Lucas, Consultant in Palliative Medicine.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

The language we use

We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

We want our information to be as clear as possible. To do this, we try to:

  • use plain English
  • explain medical words
  • use short sentences
  • use illustrations to explain text
  • structure the information clearly
  • make sure important points are clear.

We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected.

You can read more about how we produce our information here.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 September 2022
Next review: 01 September 2025
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

This means it is easy to use, up-to-date and based on the latest evidence. Learn more about how we produce our information.