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Final moments of life

Thinking about the very last moments of life is hard, but knowing what to expect may ease some of the anxiety. There are changes that commonly happen near to the time of death, signalling the final moments. It may also be reassuring to know that for most people with a terminal illness, the final moments are very peaceful.  

If you don’t feel ready to read this information just yet, you can come back to it at any time.

Loss of consciousness

Most people lose consciousness near the end of their life. But there may still be some awareness of other people in the room, and hearing what’s being said. This can be a good time to say some last words to relatives or friends and hold their hand.

Skin changes

The skin can change colour and limbs, hands and feet may feel colder, because the blood circulation is slowing down.

Breathing

Breathing may become loud and noisy if a lot of mucous has built up in the lungs and airways. It’s not a medical term but some people call this the death rattle. You may find some of the breathing patterns alarming or distressing but they generally don’t cause any discomfort.

As the moment of death comes nearer, breathing usually slows down and becomes irregular. It might stop and then start again or there might be long pauses between breaths. This can happen quickly, or it can take a long time before breathing finally stops.

Moment of death

It’s not always clear when the exact moment of death occurs. When a person dies, those around them may notice that their face suddenly relaxes and looks peaceful. On the rare occasion this is not the case, it’s unlikely that the person will have been aware of what’s happened.

A doctor or other healthcare professional will announce the death if breathing, the heart and circulation have stopped. They may also check the eyes and body for other signs.

There are many different beliefs about what happens after death, but those nearby may sense that consciousness has left. You might find the information on the Dying Matters website   about being with someone when they die helpful.

Bereavement support

This can be a very upsetting time for family and friends, so emotional and spiritual care for you and those around you is important too. Your nursing team, including your Marie Curie Nurse if you have one, can help. They can also arrange further bereavement support, so that family and friends don’t have to cope with their feelings alone.

Spiritual support

If you would like more support at this time, you may want to speak to a spiritual adviser or faith leader. Most faith leaders will have been through this experience with many others and they’re happy to help people of any or no religious faith.

Ask your hospital or local hospice to put you in touch with someone nearby. Most hospitals and hospices offer religious, spiritual and pastoral care, with representatives from different faiths.

External websites

Dying Matters   – information about death and dying

All Ireland Institute of Hospice and Palliative Care   (AIIHPC) – for care in Northern Ireland

Hospice UK  

Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care   – hospices and specialist palliative care units


This page is for general information only. It's not intended to replace any advice from health or social care professionals. We suggest that you consult with a qualified professional about your individual circumstances. Read more about how our information is created and how it's used.

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