Dying is a sacred time in life, filled with meaning and important life tasks. Despite its inevitability, death is an unfamiliar process for most of us. Each person brings to dying their own uniqueness. However, people who are in the dying process do share some common signs and symptoms.
Throughout the stages of dying, patients may present the following signs and symptoms: withdrawal, vision-like experiences, restlessness, fluid and food decrease, decreased socialization, unusual communication, asking for spiritual support, giving permission, and saying goodbye. This dying process timeline explains the stages of dying and what to expect. The timing and symptoms of each stage will vary from person to person.
During the early stage of dying, you may notice a decrease in both eating and drinking. This may last days to weeks. Follow the patient’s wishes; do not force food or fluid. Eating may become more of a burden to them, or they may feel full more quickly.
During the middle stage of dying, you may notice changes in appearance and responsiveness. The patient’s hands and feet may start to feel cold to the touch and may darken in color. Blankets can be helpful as the patient’s circulation changes; do not use heating pads or electric blankets. You should assume that the patient can hear everything, whether they are responsive or not. Talk softly and touch gently. Eventually the patient will be completely unable to speak or move, which usually happens during the last few days of life.
During the last stage of dying, you may notice disorientation or restlessness, decreased urination and bowel movements, and irregular breathing. During the dying process final hours, a rattle in the throat may be heard. These signs of death will differ from person to person. However, it is important that you remain calm, talk reassuringly, and make sure the patient is comfortable. The patient may need medication for restlessness, pads or diapers for incontinence, and pillows to elevate the patient’s head for better positioning for breathing.
Taking Care of the Caregiver
Hospice care for the terminally ill emphasizes helping the person who is dying to be as comfortable as possible and maintain a sense of control and dignity. The tasks involved in meeting these goals are not always easy. We encourage you to explore your own feelings about aging and death, give the person the opportunity to live as fully and independently as possible, learn about the hospice stages of dying, and do not place judgement on yourself or the dying person.
To learn more about the stages of the dying process, click here.
You are not alone. If you are in need of support, reach out to us.