Signs of Approaching Death
Giving support to a family member or friend who is dying is very hard. The time may be hard to
live through since you cannot know what to expect day-by-day. This handout will help you to
learn about the signs of approaching death and what you can do to comfort someone who is
dying. Knowing the signs of death can help you to better deal with the final process of life. Not
all of these signs or symptoms appear at the same time. Some may never appear. Nurses,
doctors, and other caregivers are always nearby to help you through this trying time. If you have
any questions or concerns, let us know. We are here to help.
Signs of Approaching Death What You Can Do To Comfort and Support
Greater Need for Sleep: The person will
tend to sleep more and more and may be
hard to wake up. This is the body slowing
Watch for times when your loved one is more
awake. Plan to do things and to talk with the
person when he or she is more alert.
Increased Confusion: A dying person
may be confused about time, place, and
people. This is because of changes in the
Gently remind the person of the time and day.
Let him or her know who you are and who is
nearby. You may wish to bring in a few favorite
items like pictures, a blanket, or music.
Loss of Control of Bowel and Bladder:
Some people lose control of body functions
as death nears. This is because the nervous
system changes and the muscles are
You and/or the staff will place pads under the
person and change them often. This adds
comfort and helps prevent skin breakdown.
Please ask the staff about other skin care options.
The nurses may also place a catheter into the
bladder to collect urine and to help avoid skin
Changes in Skin Temperature and Color.
Arms and legs may become cool to touch.
The underside of the body may also darken
as circulation slows down.
Use light covers and gently turn the person side
to side every few hours for comfort. Heating
pads or electric blankets should not be used.
Noisy Breathing: The person who is dying
will probably drink less and may not be
able to cough up mucous as well. It can
collect in the back of the throat causing
Turning the person on his side or raising the
head of the bed can help. Extra pillows may also
be useful. It may be helpful to suction the
Changes in Hearing and Vision:
A person’s senses aren’t as good as the
nervous system slows.
You may want to keep lights on in the room
during hours awake. Talk with your family
member or friend. Never think the person cannot
hear since hearing is the last sense to go.
Explain what you are doing. Show your
feelings. Say the things you may not have yet
said. Encourage others to do the same. Include
children and older relatives; they may want or
need to say good-bye in their own way.
Restlessness and Anxiety: The patient
may seem restless and pull at the sheets.
He may see some things you cannot see.
This can happen as the blood flow slows
and less oxygen reaches the brain.
Stay calm and speak slowly. Offer simple
reminders of the time, where he is, and who you
are. Music may be calming and sometimes
medicine may be used.
Changes in Pain: As death nears, there
may be an increase or decrease in pain.
Let your nurse or doctor know if the person
seems to be in more pain. Ask for pain
medicines as often as needed. People do not die
from too much pain medicine. They die because
the disease takes over the body.
Decreased Desire or Need for Food and
Fluids: The person you are close to may
not take or want food or fluids as they need
these less and may have a dry mouth.
If the person can swallow, offer ice chips or a
moist cloth on the lips. Using a wet Q-tip, wipe
inside the mouth and keep the lips wet with a lip
Changes in Breathing Patterns: There
may be times when the person breathes
very fast or very slow, and may not breathe
for a few seconds. This is normal the
closer they are to death.
Raising the head of the bed or using pillows to
prop him up may be helpful.
Changes in Urine: There may be less
urine and it may change in color. This can
happen as the kidney function slows.
A nurse may place a catheter in the bladder if the
dying person is not able to use a bedpan or get up
to the bathroom.
What Do You Do When Death Has Occurred?
At the time of death, the person is no longer breathing and has no pulse. The eyelids and the
mouth may be slightly open. The person will not respond when gently shaken or spoken to.
When someone dies, you will feel all sorts of emotions. Great sadness, loss, rage, and relief are
just a few of the feelings you may have. Keep in mind, there is no right or wrong way to respond
to death. Take as much time as you need. Always remember, nurses, doctors, social workers,
and clergy are nearby to work with you and help you during this stressful time of grief and loss.
Your health care team may have given you this information as part of your care. If so, please use it and call if you
have any questions. If this information was not given to you as part of your care, please check with your doctor. This
is not medical advice. This is not to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. Because each
person’s health needs are different, you should talk with your doctor or others on your health care team when using
this information. If you have an emergency, please call 911. Copyright ©8/2015 University of Wisconsin Hospitals
and Clinics Authority. All rights reserved. Produced by the Department of Nursing. HF#5361