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Last Days of Life (PDQ®)

Care in the Final Hours

Knowing what to expect in the final days or hours may be comforting to the family.

Most people are not familiar with the signs that death is near. Knowing what to expect can prepare them for the death of their loved one and make this time less stressful and confusing. Health care providers can give family members information about the changes they may see in their loved one in the final hours and how they may help their loved one through it.

Patients often lose the desire to eat or drink in the final days or hours.

In the final days to hours of life, patients often lose the desire to eat or drink, and may refuse food and fluids that are offered to them. The family may give ice chips or swab the mouth and lips to keep them moist. Forcing food and fluids can make the patient uncomfortable or cause choking. Family members may find other ways to show their love for the patient, such as massage.

Patients near death may not respond to others.

Patients may withdraw and spend more time sleeping. They may answer questions slowly or not at all, seem confused, and show little interest in their surroundings. Most patients are still able to hear after they are no longer able to speak. It may give some comfort if family members continue to touch and talk to the patient, even if the patient does not respond.

A number of physical changes are common when the patient is near death.

Some of the following physical changes may occur in the patient at the end of life:

  • The patient may feel tired or weak.
  • The patient may pass less urine and it may be dark in color.
  • The patient’s hands and feet may become blotchy, cold, or blue. Caregivers can use blankets to keep the patient warm. Electric blankets or heating pads should not be used.
  • The heart rate may go up or down and become irregular.
  • Blood pressure usually goes down.
  • Breathing may become irregular, with very shallow breathing, short periods of not breathing, or deep, rapid breathing.

Patients and their families may have cultural or religious beliefs and customs that are important at the time of death.

After the patient dies, family members and caregivers may wish to stay with the patient a while. There may be certain customs or rituals that are important to the patient and family at this time. These might include rituals for coping with death, handling the patient's body, making final arrangements for the body, and honoring the death. The patient and family members should let the health care team know about any customs or rituals they want performed after the patient's death.

Health care providers, hospice staff, social workers, or spiritual leaders can explain the steps that need to be taken once death has occurred, including contacting a funeral home.

(See the PDQ summary on Spirituality in Cancer Care for more information.)

  • Updated: July 15, 2014