Common Sensations People Feel At The End Of Life (That Aren't Pain)

Dying is never a pleasant topic to talk about, especially when you know the person at the end of life is in pain. And while some amount of physical hurt is probably inescapable in most cases, especially when a person's heart rate begins to slow down and blood is not sufficiently being pumped to all areas of their body or if they don't have access to proper pain relief medications, not all of the sensations that come with dying are painful. 

What happens in the final moments before death is greatly dependent on a person's health condition, whether or not they're dying of terminal illness, and whether the death was instant or long and drawn out. In the case of terminal illness, for example, one common physiological change has to do with someone's body temperature. If there's an infection like sepsis or neoplastic fever brought on by cancer, temperature changes and sweating might occur (via Marie Curie). Someone may feel body temperature changes if they're on certain medications, too — like antidepressants, opioids, or hormone therapy — or because they are getting less oxygen or having low blood sugar. There are also other common sensations associated with end-of-life that don't cause physical distress. 

End-of-life patients experience loss of appetite and tiredness

When you're dying, all the processes in your body start to slow down, including your digestive system and metabolism. This means that someone on their deathbed won't have the same need (or interest) for food as they used to have before. This is a normal sensation for someone who's at their last stages and while it might be difficult for loved ones to comprehend, experts recommend not forcing someone to eat or drink if they don't feel like it. You can, however, apply lip balm or wet their lips from time to time to make sure they're not uncomfortable in any way. 

In some cases, not drinking (or eating) might even bring some relief to those who are dying, especially if they've been throwing up often and this has been causing pain. Consult with healthcare professionals about how to best handle your dying loved one's lack of interest in food and drink. 

Someone at the end of life might also feel very tired and want to sleep often. This is because there's a decrease in oxygen going toward their brain. This is also connected to what happens to your skin just before death. When blood is being directed to vital organs to sustain life, not much will reach other parts of your body, resulting in skin that's cool to the touch. 

Someone at the end of life might experience terminal delirium

Terminal delirium or terminal restlessness is a state that includes agitation, confusion, and emotional distress on the part of the person who's dying and is quite common among palliative care patients. Although not physically painful, it can be difficult for loved ones who are around to experience it. 

Someone who's dying and experiencing terminal restlessness may exhibit different emotional states like anger, outbursts, and calmness (per Healthline). They may also appear detached from their loved ones, reject physical affection, and even fight with those closest to them. They might try to take off their clothing, pull on any intravenous tubes attached to them, generally be very confused, and also have issues with their memory and attention span. This is also when what people see and hear before they die becomes a topic of interest. Hallucinations, disorientation, and delusions are not uncommon during this stage. 

Caring for someone you've known your whole life and who is going through these sensations can be extremely difficult. Experts recommend being mindful of their physical environment — like avoiding harsh lights, abrupt movements, or loud noises (per Kokua Mau). Remind your loved one who you are and try and speak to them in gentle and reassuring ways. There are also medications that can help with agitation which you can talk to your doctor about. Ultimately, unless in the case of sudden death, pain is a part of death as much as it is a part of life. Understanding the different sensations that come with the end of life can help you care for your loved one with greater empathy.