This leaflet describes some of the changes that happen when people start to die. It is likely to be a challenging time but Trinity staff are here to answer any concerns or questions you may have about what is happening and why. Please don’t hesitate to ask us.

The dying process is unique to each person but there are often common changes, whatever the underlying illness. Most people die peacefully and comfortably.

Changes in breathing

When someone suffers from breathlessness it is common to worry that they will die fighting for breath. As the body becomes less active
towards the end of life the demand for oxygen is reduced and breathing is often easier than it has been for a long time. 

When death is very close the pattern of breathing may change. There may be long pauses between breaths and sometimes the stomach muscles take over the work of breathing. Occasionally in the final stages of life breathing can become noisy. This is often because of a
build-up of mucus in the chest or throat that cannot be cleared. Medication may reduce this and changes in position may also help. Whilst this noisy breathing can be upsetting to hear it doesn’t usually distress the dying person.

Reduced need for food and drink

When people are dying they no longer have the same desire for food and drink, as their body no longer needs it and often cannot absorb it. Our staff will support the taking of food and fluids as long as the person is able to swallow. It can sometimes be hard to accept these changes. It is our natural instinct to provide food and drink to those we care about but the withdrawal from food and fluids is a normal part of the dying process.


Sometimes people become restless or confused as death approaches. They may, for instance, see things that aren’t there or say things that don’t make sense to us. If the doctors or nurses feel that something specific, such as pain, is causing the restlessness or if the person is distressed, they may try to alleviate it with medication. It often helps to let the person know you are there, by talking to them or holding their hand. Listening to their favourite music can help them relax.


When someone is dying, withdrawing from the world is common. People spend more time asleep and they are often drowsy. They may
be less interested in things around them and may not readily respond. It is understandably difficult to see someone withdraw but it is part of the natural process of dying. Simply being near the person, holding their hand and speaking quietly can be a great comfort.
Eventually people may lapse into unconsciousness and may remain like this for some time.

Physical appearance

Prior to death a person’s skin can become pale, moist, mottled and slightly cooler.

Final moments

The person’s face and body may relax, their eyes become less clear and they may become very pale. The person’s breathing will  eventually stop. Sometimes there may be a gasp a few minutes after what seemed to be the last breath. It is a profound moment when someone dies and you may suddenly feel overwhelmed by sadness and exhaustion; you may want to be alone or be with others. The finality of the moment can take you by surprise, even when death has been expected.

It can sometimes help to sit with the person for a while or carry out a particular ritual that is important to you or the person who has died.

Our support

It can be very hard to see someone you love and have cared for dying. It can be difficult to know what to do, what to say and how to cope. Our staff are always here for you so please do come and talk to us about how you are feeling and any concerns you may have.

Download the leaflet about what happens when a person is dying

We can send hard copies of this leaflet to healthcare professionals and other local partners for free. Click here to place your order.