How do you know when someone is beginning their dying process?

Nearing the End of Life Brochure is available as a hard copy, or you can download it onto Kindle

There are certain signs when illness or old age has tipped into a preparation for death.

  • Physical changes : These changes are part of the ageing process. The skin can become paper-thin and pale, with dark liver spots appearing on hands, feet and face. Hair can also thin and the person may shrink in stature. Teeth can discolour or develop dark stains.
  • Their external world begins to diminish – until the dying person no longer wants to leave the house or their bed.
  • Increased sleep: The person begins to sleep for long periods. This can be distressing for relatives, but it’s important to understand that physical exertion for someone approaching death is exhausting, and, for the moment, all effort is being put into staying alive. Nearer the end, they may increasingly drift in and out of consciousness.
  • Appetite reduces: The body knows it no longer needs fuel to keep it going, and those who are dying often lose their desire to eat or drink. They can begin to lose weight sometimes quite rapidly. It’s important not to force food or drink onto someone who no longer wants it. But do take guidance from nursing staff.
  • Change of language: The person may start to talk about ‘leaving’, ‘flying’, ‘going home’, ‘being taken home’, ‘being collected’, ‘going on holiday’ or making some kind of journey. They may also begin to express heart-felt gratitude to their carers and to their family as a preparation to say their farewells.
  • Special requests: They may want to do something special such as visit a particular site, or be surrounded by their favourite flowers, or to hear certain music, or to have family photographs near, or to make contact with someone who has been important in their lives.
  • The dying may also feel compelled to resolve unfinished business. Towards the end of life, the dividing line between the outer world and inner world can become very thin.  For example, we know now from research how, when they are nearing death, people are often called by an almost organic process to confront and resolve unfinished issues from their past, particularly with family members.
  • Deathbed visions: It is not uncommon in the weeks, days or even hours and moments before death for a dying person to speak of being ‘visited’ by dead relatives, friends, groups of children, religious figures, or even favourite pets.

A little more about deathbed visions
The dying will say these apparitions have come to ‘collect’ them or help them let go. Even when semi-conscious and unable to communicate to those sitting with them, it may appear that they are reaching out to take hold of something, and then feeling it between their fingers as if puzzled. They may also appear to be thinking deeply, as if they are being ‘shown’ information that they may not have considered before.

The dying, and those who witness these end-of-life experiences, usually describe them with loving, reassuring words such as calming, soothing, greeting, comforting, beautiful, readying.It is not known how many dying people have such visions and experiences.

But research does suggest that they happen in all cultures and religions, occurring generally within weeks, days or hours of death.However, it is probable that many end-of-life experiences are not reported, because either the dying person is afraid appearing confused or distressed, or believes he or she will be given medication to stop them happening.

Carers may keep quiet about them because they feel it is not professional to talk about such things. Or they simply do not have the time to sit with the dying and therefore miss them.

Relatives may not speak about such experiences to staff or to family and friends for fear of ridicule or disbelief. Nevertheless , research suggests that end-of-life visions and dreams hold profound meaning for the dying, and help them come to terms with their dying process

6 thoughts on “How do you know when someone is beginning their dying process?

  1. My mom got diagnosed with dermatomyositis and interstitial lung disease. she has started hillucinating and telling me stories about a scare crow nest and a witches broom. she hardly eats or drinks anymore. could this be a sign of dying process?

    • Hi Zooly

      I don’t know if you mum is on medication, but these hallucinations might be caused by this. Hallucinations can be controlled by changing medication, so encourage her to talk to her doctor.

    • My husband began to hallucinate when he was taking too much medicine for water retention. He was dying, but when we stopped the water pills, he stopped hallucinating. The day before he died he was hallucinating again but he was aware that he was seeing flies around my shoulder and asked if he was hallucinating.

  2. I sat with my grandmother for a week before she died and she appeared to be holding court as a procession of friends and relatives appeared to her. It seemed to give her great pleasure and she spoke her welcome out loud. It made me feel much happier as well. since she did not appear to be upset at all. If this process is just down to drugs rhen it must be well documented.

  3. I too have witnessed the snatching out effect. When my sister was dying, she said she was getting fed up with the man in the ward leaning on the wall looking at her. Looking around, I couldn’t see him and asked what he looked like. Jesus, was her reply, followed by her annoyance at him standing around watching her.

    Since then, I have again witnessed the reaching out, snatching effect when my father-in-law was dying. We thought it might be something to do with the drugs, but it is curious that so many dying people do this.

    I believe there may also be a chemical change in the brain, as I have also found people go from the concern of dying to a state of not being frightened. Almost a kind of tranquil acceptance.

    Unfortunately, I now have 2 brother-in-laws, both at stage 4 and withering away at an alarming rate. It brings on a very humble feeling, suddenly materials and money have very little meaning and you look at life and people in a very different light.

    I’m not hugely religious, but perhaps this is when one should realise how important the life you share with others should always be cherished – sometimes not understood until it is too late. ‘Lumen Vidi’

  4. My mother has spent the past couple of weeks talking to every dead person from her past as she prepares to die. My Dad died two years ago and she has had many visits with him in the house. It has been a fascinating process and I hope reassuring for her.

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