To walk through the final days and hours of life with someone who is dying is an experience unlike any other. Your desire and willingness to stay with your loved one and keep watch until the very end shows tremendous love and courage. Yet, although your commitment to your loved one is unwavering, as death approaches, you may feel anxious and afraid, especially if you’ve never walked this path before. Fear of the unknown is universal.
As your loved one grows weaker, you may worry that you will be unable to cope, or wonder how you will react when death occurs. The fact is that every death is unique, and there’s no way to predict exactly what will happen when your loved one passes, but you can alleviate some of your own anxiety by learning some of the common changes that happen as one is dying.
Physical signs of impending death
As a terminal illness enters its final stages, all of the body’s functions begin a natural slowdown. The length of this stage varies from hours to days. Your loved one will become weaker and sleep more, entering a semi-conscious state.
Remember, medical professionals tell us that hearing is the last sense we lose. Continue to talk to your loved one, even though he may be unable to respond. Hold his hand and let him know you are there. Tell him if you leave the room, let him know when you return, and take care not to say anything in your loved one’s presence that you wouldn’t want him to hear.
When death is very near, your loved one may
- Have difficulty swallowing
- Become unable (or refuse) to eat or drink anything
- Lose control of bladder and/or bowels
- Become restless and agitated
- Breath unevenly or noisily
- Appear confused and disoriented
- Lose consciousness
Watching your loved one go through physical changes like these may be hard for you emotionally, but keep in mind that all of these signs are a natural part of the dying process, and their presence doesn’t mean your loved one is in distress.
If she is in a hospital or receiving hospice care at home, the medical team overseeing her care will be checking her regularly and doing everything they can to ensure she is as comfortable as possible. If you are concerned about your loved one’s comfort or have questions about the care she is receiving, talk to her doctor or nurse – they are concerned about your welfare, too.
What You Can Do
When faced with a difficult situation, it’s natural to want to do something to make it better. While you can’t change the course of nature, you can help to keep your loved one comfortable in a number of ways.
- Keep him warm. As death nears, the extremities (hands, arms, feet, and legs) may become cold. Make sure there are socks and warm blankets available.
- Don’t try to force your loved one to eat or drink. If his lips are dry, you can use petroleum jelly or lip balm to keep them from becoming cracked or sore. If he is conscious, you can offer him ice chips to keep his mouth moist. You can also apply water to his mouth or swab with lemon and glycerin swabs you can get from his nurse.
- If your loved one’s breathing is labored, try elevating the head of his bed or raising him up with pillows to make breathing easier. Just sitting with him and speaking in soothing tones can be help to reassure him. If breathing is very difficult, the doctor may prescribe morphine to make breathing easier.
Caring for Yourself
Witnessing the dying and death of a friend or family member takes an emotional toll. Although you may feel desperate to change what is happening, the most loving thing you can do at this point, as painful as it may be, is to let go and to encourage your loved one to do the same. Let him know how much you will miss him, but assure him you will be okay.
Don’t worry that you might say or do the wrong thing; your faithful presence is exactly what your loved one needs at this time. Take care of yourself by asking for help from health care workers and your minister. Above all, take support from other friends and family members – your bond with them will be a godsend in the difficult days ahead.