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

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

18 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?

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

  5. My grandfather is nearing death, in all honesty probably any minute now I will be receiving a call. He has been experiencing deathbed visions for about a week now. He never mentions it but my mom and grandmother both saw him reaching out and talking to all of his relatives. Sunday his dog who passed a few months ago came to visit him. I too thought my mom was making things up but after she has seen it many times I believe it has happened.

  6. I wish Hospice would stress that one should sit and talk with their dying relatives.. I took care of my husband day and night for weeks before he died. During his final days he was heavily medicated and slept all the time. I took care of him, but did not talk to him and sit and hold his hand. I don’t know if I was just so tired, scared or what, but I feel like I let him down when he needed me most. I feel so guilty because I loved him with all my heart for 56 years.

  7. I appreciate having this available to read. It’s very helpful. My parents seem to be going at the same time which is comforting after 68 years together. I feel at peace.

  8. about a week before my mother died she told me 2 very nice young people came to see her they told her they would come back soon to get her dressed and take her home. She was blind but yet saw them clearly.

  9. The dying often see children in their room. This has been well documented by end of life research. It appears that these spirit children help the person let go, and to die in peace.
    I hope this helps.

  10. About 6 months ago, my 94 yr. old aunt told me she saw a black dog on her 4th floor balcony. She opened the door to let it in and it was gone. She then said she saw a blond haired child on her sofa…no facial features…just laying there. For the last three weeks she said she has been seeing my uncle who passed almost 20 yrs. ago. She sees his outline of his body, he is waving at her with one hand and has a bunch of flowers in the other. He never bought her fresh flowers because he said it was a waste of money because they just die.

    I feel sure she is seeing these things and we have talked many times about my uncle coming to visit her. I told her I felt he wanted her to know she won’t be alone when she leaves this world that he will be there for her. The child may have been her infant son who passed in 1957…he was blonde hair and an infant. The black dog she had passed many years ago.

    I feel sure she is trying to prepare herself and possibly me for her passing. I have cleaned out her closets and organized them, cleaned out her canned food, and wiped the top of her appliances as she wanted them all done. Today, she wanted to go for a ride to get fresh air so off we went.

    I am her primary caregiver and I can see she is losing weight, her appetite is gone, she is staying inside her apartment most of the time, and talking to very few people. I just pray that I am keeping her as comfortable as I can and that she finds some comfort in her visits from my uncle.

    1. What a loving thing to do for her! I, too, sat with a dear friend for her last week. Her beloved late grandfather came for her. She went from being fearful to a lovely peaceful and relaxed end.

  11. My 90 year old father who is in a care home and very frail, said he was confused last week as he was going on a trip the following day. When I asked where to, he said “home, this isn’t my home”. It was very strange as he had never said anything like that before. I had heard that the dying often say they are going on a journey.

  12. Just found this site. The night my grandmother died, my mother was with her and she said ‘oh Mabel you look just like my mother’ and peacefully died although suffering from bowel cancer. This was in 1954 and I have never spoken to anyone regarding the final moments of the dying.My grandmother’s mother died when Gran was 14 and there were no photos, so how would Gran know what she looked like.

  13. I find this site so very comforting and enjoyed reading all the comments. My mother is 92 and dying of bowel cancer. We have had a very difficult time over the past couple of years since her diagnosis as our mum has never been a ‘happy’ person and our childhood was very dysfunctional to say the least. I cannot ever recall her laughing or being happy, and physical love and cuddles were almost non existent. Just over a month ago Mum was admitted to hospital as she was hallucinating due to taking codeine for pain relief and considered not safe to be on her own. Mum has given us all such a hard time because she hates being in hospital and she decided three weeks ago that she did not want any of her daughters to visit. We did visit every few days however but sometimes left close to tears as she made it clear she did not want us there. After a particularly unpleasant scene in which she said all she wants is to die in peace and be left alone, we made the difficult decision to honour her wishes and stay away. Then two days ago mum had a fall and hit her head, she was taken to a larger hospital for a CT scan and sent back to our local hospital. We heard that the head injury had caused a small bleed on the front temporal lobe and were asked if we could go and sit with her as she was very frail. My sister and I went last night at around 10pm dreading the reception we may get from mum owing to previous times.

    When we arrived mum was sitting up in bed, very alert and finger playing the air in front of her. As we approached her bed she smiled broadly at us and held out her arms. As we moved close for an embrace she was laughing and happy. Not much she said made sense … she had been somewhere the day before and come home on a bus full of noisy people and some gypsies were trying to sell her flowers but she refused to buy them. She was continually grabbing at the air in front of her with delighted oohs and aaaaahs with childlike joy. She kept reaching out for our hands. Some of the time mum was quite lucid asking after my little dog and mentioning our other sister and brother by name. She remembered some of the grandchildren coming to see her. This was interspersed with talking about people she knew long ago, some had even ‘been to see her’. We had a laugh when she wanted us to close the curtain(s) because mum said they were a pair and she wanted to see them closed together but we tried explaining that it was one big curtain but we went through the motions of pretending to close them. Another time this would have been stressful as we would have felt stupid but we ended up laughing and even mum saw the funny side. She was not on any pain relief other than paracetamol which she takes three times a day.

    It was a magical time and we are so happy to have been with our mum and seen her like this. So totally different to the mother we have known all our lives. I can only think now that mum was experiencing the visions others have talked about. We are not expecting mum to live much longer as she is not eating much at all and is getting very frail but at least she will leave us with this very happy memory.

  14. The night that my Aunt died from stomach cancer she was drifting in and out of consciousness but she suddenly sat bolt upright, held out her arms and she smiled and said just one word ‘Jo.’
    Then she laid back on her pillows and died. Josephine was the name of her daughter who was killed in a car crash and my aunt always called her Jo.

  15. My mother is dying of Alzheimers and has been under Hospice care for about two months now. She is very thin and today, for the first time, almost completely unresponsive. I have read many of these comments and must concer! My mother has seen many groups of children and she said she was feeding them and caring for them. She has mentioned many of our relatives and friends who have passed away and said they’ve come to see her. One of the most profound thoughts… She told me her father, my grandpa Johnny, comes to her every night….he says NOT TONIGHT, DOLLY…. WOW! I do believe they see people and places from their past… She also told me what she saw was BEAUTIFUL. I get the feeling that today was one of our last visits. She was very lithargic and did not respond to my son and I at all. Thank you everyone.

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