Chapter 6: Preparing for an approaching death

What to expect as death nears

The expert says
Andrea Warnick, children's grief therapist, explains how children benefit when they're present for the dying, death and after death. (3:22)Video transcript

I've never seen someone die before so preparing the kids for what to expect was totally outside of my comfort zone. 


Regardless of the illness, the last days and hours are similar. These are some ways to explain what might happen to a person as they're dying. 

Learn more about the last days and hours of life in the  When Death is Near article on Canadian Virtual Hospice. 

SleepinessWhen a body is dying, the person usually feels very tired. They may be very weak and sleepy, or they may not be waking up at all any more. Even if they’re not waking up, they may still be able to hear, and they may know who’s around them. You can still talk to them even though they can’t talk to you. In the hours before they die, even though the person seems to be sleeping, their eyes may be open and not blinking at all.
Eating and drinkingWhen a body gets very close to dying, it usually doesn’t need anything to eat or drink and often doesn’t feel hungry or thirsty. It’s important to understand that the person isn’t eating or drinking because their body is dying. They’re not dying because they've stopped eating or drinking.
Pain medicinesEven though medicines are something we often take to get better, there are also medicines that make people feel more comfortable. The job of these medicines is to help take the pain away - not to help the person get better or stop the dying from happening. Also, the medicine isn’t causing the person to die – the disease is causing the dying NOTE: Pain can usually be well controlled at the end of life. If, however, the person is experiencing a lot of pain, try to avoid having children visit until this is under control.
ConfusionWhen a body is dying, changes happen in the person’s brain that can make them very confused. They may call people by the wrong name, or perhaps not know where they are. They may do things such as pick at their bedding or become very restless.
Seeing people who aren't thereSometimes as people are dying, they describe or speak to people who the rest of us can’t see. If the dying person can’t talk, they may wave or make gestures towards someone or something that no one else can see. Usually this is comforting for the person who is dying.
Skin colour and temperatureAs a body dies, the skin often changes colour. In some cases, the skin may be yellow, which happens when the liver (an organ in the body) is no longer working properly. When the person’s body is very close to dying, the arms and legs may become very cold, and parts of the body may turn a blue colour (such as lips, knees, fingernails and toenails).
BreathingWhen a body is dying, the person’s breathing will often change. Their breath may be very light and difficult to notice, or it may be deep. Breathing may become very noisy and even sound like gurgles. There may be long gaps between breaths. This can be upsetting to hear, but it might help to remember that this type of breathing is like snoring – it sounds horrible to everyone else, but isn’t uncomfortable for the person who is snoring!
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