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Last Days of Life (PDQ®)

Health Professional Version

Care During the Final Hours

Although the signs of approaching death may appear obvious to health care professionals, many family members have never observed the death of a loved one as death has become more institutionalized. As a result, most people are not familiar with the signs of impending death. Educating family members about these signs is critical.

In the final days to hours of life, patients often experience a decreased desire to eat or drink, as evidenced by clenched teeth or turning from offered food and fluids. This behavior may be difficult for family members to accept because of the meaning of food in our society and the inference that the patient is “starving.” Family members should be advised that forcing food or fluids can lead to aspiration. Reframing will include teaching the family to provide ice chips or a moistened oral applicator to keep a patient’s mouth and lips moist. Massage is another strategy through which family members can provide care and demonstrate love.

Patients may withdraw and spend more time sleeping. When patients respond slowly to questions, are somewhat confused, and have a decreased interest in their environment, family should be encouraged to touch and speak to them. Professionals can model these behaviors. A patient’s extremities may become mottled, cold, or cyanotic. The heart rate may increase or decrease and may become irregular; blood pressure usually drops as death approaches. Urine output may decrease dramatically or cease. Respiration often takes on an abnormal pattern called Cheyne-Stokes respiration, which ranges from very shallow breaths to alternating periods of apnea and deep, rapid breathing. These changes should be explained to family members at the bedside or when they are preparing to care for a loved one at home

It is important for health care professionals to explore with families any fears associated with the time of death and any cultural or religious rituals that may be important to them. Such rituals might include placement of the body (e.g., the head of the bed facing Mecca for an Islamic patient) or having only same-sex caregivers or family members wash the body (as practiced in many orthodox religions). When death occurs, expressions of grief by those at the bedside vary greatly, dictated in part by culture and in part by their preparation for the death. Chaplains should be consulted as early as possible if the family accepts this assistance. Health care providers can offer to assist families in contacting loved ones and making other arrangements, including contacting a funeral home. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Spirituality in Cancer Care for more information.)

  • Updated: July 16, 2014