What Is Dying Like? A Nurse Explains What Dying Bodies Do

It's hard to ask your doctor what dying will be like. Death is a reality everyone will face one way or another. If you have an incurable illness, knowing what to expect as your body shuts down helps you prepare for as "good" of death as possible.

Key takeaways:
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    If you have an incurable illness, knowing what to expect as your body shuts down helps you prepare for as "good" of death as possible.
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    There are similarities to every death, but each dying person’s journey is unique.
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    Normal signs and symptoms of dying are increased fatigue and weakness, social withdrawal, increased pain, loss of appetite and thirst, and altered mental status.
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    Changes in the bladder, bowel movements, breathing, and vital signs are also normal.
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    Facing these changes alone can increase suffering. Seek help earlier in your journey from your loved ones and a palliative care specialist.

A “good” death to most people is free of avoidable suffering and aligns with their cultural, spiritual, and relational wishes as much as possible. To achieve a more peaceful death, studies and experts say preparing helps.

As a hospital nurse, I cared for many dying people during their final hours and walked their families through the process. Every last breath was sacred and unique. The patients who learned about death and talked about what they wanted to develop a realistic plan for their comfort. They were more likely to avoid unnecessary suffering for themselves and their families.

At a point in the dying process, you’ll become unconscious and no longer able to express your wishes. Talking sooner than later about your end-of-life needs empowers your family and caregivers to care well for you when that time comes.

What it’s like to die: signs and symptoms of natural dying

A “natural” death refers to someone dying of a terminal illness or old age. More sudden death due to a traumatic injury will have some of these similar signs but at a more rapid pace depending on the injury. These signs and symptoms occur during the last few months to hours of a dying patient.

1. Weakness and fatigue

As the end nears, it's normal to feel weak and sleepy, but the timeline differs for everyone. Some become weak quickly while others – often younger or healthier at diagnosis – take longer but then decline rapidly.

It's okay to sleep as much as you need. Try to time your daily tasks and activities for when you're more likely to have energy.

As you get weaker, a simple activity like sitting outside, going out to eat, or being with your children can cheer you up, even if it's exhausting. But there may be a point where you simply can't do it anymore.

Be honest with your loved ones and caregivers about how you're feeling. Rather than push yourself too hard, be willing to ask for help when your muscles become too weak to move on their own.

2. Social withdrawal

As you progress toward death, you may feel less social. It can be hard to tell this to your loved ones, especially if you're from a culture or community that many people want to visit. But it's okay to let them know if you want fewer visitors. Try your best to explain how you feel, assuring them it’s not their fault.

At the end of life, some people want to be surrounded by friends and family instead of becoming less social. Let your loved ones know if you enjoy their visits.

As you feel more withdrawn and weaker, consider the remaining important things you wish to say and try to have the courage to say them before it's too late.

3. Pain

Your pain may increase as your disease advances or your joints stiffen, but no one should suffer needlessly. Medications, hospice care, and alternative health treatments all help ease your discomfort.

It is difficult for your loved ones to see you hurt. Be sure you talk thoroughly with them about how you want to manage your pain. You may want enough medication to ease the pain while also staying awake with loved ones. Or, you may want the medicine to help you sleep painlessly for much of the day.

Take oral pain medications 45 minutes before the pain becomes intense or before you have an activity planned. Use consistent language to describe your pain so loved ones and caregivers understand when it changes. Make a list of questions about pain management to ask your hospice nurse during their next visit, such as when to call them about increasing pain and how best to take your pain medication. Consider alternative treatments like acupuncture, massage, music therapy, or Reiki.

As you near death and can no longer talk, your loved ones and medical providers will watch for nonverbal signs of pain like grimacing, moaning, stiffening, resistance when they try to move you, calling out, restlessness, or labored and uncomfortable breathing. They can give you medications for any signs of discomfort.

You can trust that with medical help like hospice, you’ll be more comfortable and peaceful.

4. Loss of appetite and thirst

Nearly all patients lose their appetite as they near the end. Your brain will not trigger hunger and thirst sensations during the final stage of death, so you may have no desire to eat or drink.

Eating and drinking less – or not at all – is a normal part of dying as the body stops using nutrients like it did when it was healthier. As a result, your hospice nurse won’t advise trips to the hospital for intravenous (I.V.) fluids or artificial nutrition.

Your loved ones might fear you’ll “starve to death” and plead with you to eat or drink, believing it will increase your comfort and strength. Remind them with kindness that you’re not uncomfortable. When your body is dying from an incurable illness, it will continue to shut down no matter how much you eat.

Eating or drinking less may make your mouth dry and uncomfortable, however. You or your loved ones can apply lip balm and mouth moisturizer. You can also lightly moisten oral sponges with water to moisten your mouth.

5. Dreams, visions, and hallucinations

In the final days and hours, you may become less alert, drifting in and out of consciousness. Many dying patients have dreams and visions of lost loved ones, God, or other spiritual realities. You may experience hallucinations or a surge of energy just before you die. Some feel an increased awareness of death as it gets closer.

For most people, this delirium or altered state of consciousness is peaceful and not distressing.

However, if you become agitated, medications like haloperidol can restore your comfort. Caregivers can also check for other problems like pain, constipation, bladder infections, or side effects of medication.

If you experience such symptoms when you are still awake and alert, it can be helpful to talk with loved ones or care providers like end-of-life doulas and hospice nurses, counselors, and chaplains.

6. Bladder and bowel changes

At different stages during the dying journey, you may notice bowel and bladder changes.

Your urine may change color due to organ failure, and you may urinate less. Depending on your disease process, you might lose control of your bladder – also called bladder incontinence.

Incontinence can cause skin breakdown for bedridden patients. If this happens, some medical providers recommend a urinary catheter if they increase patient comfort while protecting their skin. A catheter may also be recommended if your bladder is retaining urine.

Constipation is not uncommon at the end of life. Your medical providers should counsel you on taking stool softeners and laxatives for constipation. These should be stopped or decreased, however, if you stop eating.

It may feel awkward, but it’s always best, to be honest about these symptoms with your caregivers.

7. Skin changes

In the later stages of the dying process, your skin may change in temperature and color as it stops functioning. During your final days, your body will move blood away from your arms and legs while it shunts it to the vital organs. These changes can make you feel cold and make your skin look pale, gray, or blotchy.

Some people, however, feel warm and flushed or develop a slight fever. A cool cloth on one’s forehead may ease the heat.

Keep your loved ones informed when you get too cold or hot. This helps them understand your body’s trend to care for you when you’re unconscious. Heated blankets and heating pads can be helpful but can also burn your skin if ignored.

8. Breathing changes

When people are within days to hours of dying, their breathing changes. Sometimes it’s very slow and regular with only a few breaths each minute. For others, it’s slow and irregular where they may breathe three breaths and then wait 45 seconds to take another breath.

Some patients breathe very fast, then slow down, pause, breathe fast again, and so on. This is a normal end-of-life breathing pattern called Cheyne-Stokes respiration. It can occur when the brain forgets to trigger breathing.

When you reach your final breaths, agonal breathing is common. Agonal breaths look like the patient is trying to gulp for air and can be distressing to loved ones if they’re unfamiliar with it. Nurses sometimes nickname it “guppy” breathing because the mouth opens wide and the jaw and shoulders work to pull oxygen into the lungs.

When the diaphragm and other muscles weaken, phlegm builds up in a dying patient’s airways, making a rattling sound when they breathe. This is known as the “death rattle.” If this rattle occurs to you, it will not feel uncomfortable, but the sound can be distressing to loved ones. Your caregivers may reposition your body or your neck to reduce the rattle.

If a medication like atropine is given at the beginning of your final days, it may improve the death rattle later when it occurs in your final hours.

These breathing changes – even agonal breathing and the death rattle – rarely, if ever, cause discomfort. They are a normal part of dying and occur when you are in a relaxed and unconscious sleep.

If your breathing does look painful, very labored, or very rapid, your loved ones or nurses will give you a medication like oral or I.V. morphine, because the labored breathing may be a sign of pain. Morphine is typically the end-of-life pain medication of choice because it not only dulls the pain but also eases your breathing.

You may want to continue wearing oxygen as you reach the end. In most cases, it will not lengthen your life significantly during the final days, but some people find it comforting.

9. Heartbeat and blood pressure changes

Changes in your heartbeat and blood pressure will also occur. Your heart rate may become irregular and eventually weaker as your heart fails. These are normal changes and are not treated at the end of life. To de-medicalize the dying process for the patient and their loved ones, most medical providers will stop monitoring vital signs during a patient’s final days.

Facing death takes profound courage. If you have an incurable illness and know death approaches, gather your loved ones and your medical team around you. Consult with a palliative care specialist sooner than later to help you through the journey. Be sure to talk openly with them about tough topics such as what it's like to die and how they can help make you comfortable.

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