Supporting someone who is dying
It can be hard to know how best to support someone who is dying. But we're here for you. On this page, we share advice to help you support a family member or friend who is terminally ill, including tips on how to comfort them in their final days and hours.
Visiting someone who is dying
Visiting someone who is dying gives you an opportunity to show the person that you’re there for them.
It can help them know they’re loved and cared for, and it can also help you come to terms with their death. For some people, saying goodbye face-to-face may also be an important part of the grieving process.
If you decide to visit someone who is dying, try to check in with their healthcare team and family members about when might be a good time to visit, and how long you should stay for.
You might also want to think about whether you would prefer to see them alone, or to have someone else there too. It can be upsetting to be with a dying person, so try to think about what might help you if you start to feel this way.
When someone you’re very close to is in their final hours or days, you may want to keep a vigil. This means being by their bedside, or making sure there is always someone with them. This can be physically and emotionally tiring, so sometimes people choose to do this in shifts.
What to do for someone who is dying
If someone you care about is close to death, there are things you can do to help them feel as comfortable as possible. Often the person will find it relaxing just to have you there as a calm presence, but here are a few things that can make a difference:
- Hold their hand to reassure them.
- Use pillows or cushions to support them.
- Change the position they’re lying, as this can sometimes help them feel more comfortable. If it’s difficult to move them, the healthcare team can help with this, or advise you how to do it safely.
- If they feel achy in a particular part of their body, you may be able to ease the pain using warm or cold pads.
- A simple hand massage - a complementary therapist can give you tips on how to do this.
If needed, carers may also be able to give patients oral medication. That’s why it’s really important to know and understand what medication the person is already taking.
If you notice that the person you’re caring for seems to be distressed or experiencing more pain, tell the healthcare team.
And if you’re helping someone at home, the specialist community nurse, district nurses, GP and out-of-hours services will also be able to offer help and advice.
Caring for someone who’s dying can be very tough. If you’re a family member or close friend of someone who is terminally ill, it’s important to look after yourself too.
How to be with someone who is dying
Often people worry about how to be with someone who is dying. It can help to keep in mind that just being there is likely to be the most important thing.
Friends and relatives often worry about what to say, and you may find it difficult not to feel awkward. Try to chat as openly as you can. Some people will want to talk about their death, while others may not want to speak about it at all. You don’t have to try to make things alright, and it’s OK to be honest.
Someone who is dying might be experiencing many emotions, including fear, anger, sadness and worry. Giving them space to share these thoughts, feelings and worries can help them to feel heard and supported.
Some people might also want help planning for the future, so that things will be in order when they die. We’ve got lots of information to help you both with this.
Although the diagnosis was pretty sudden, mentally he was fine, so we had time to process all of the things that he wanted to talk about, his wishes and how he wanted everything to go. He had what they call a ‘good death’. He was where he wanted to be, with the people he wanted to be with and his pain control was good.
Julia, talking about the death of her husbandRead Julia's story
When someone is very ill, they might not be able to speak at all, or may be sedated or unconscious. Here are some ideas for how to spend time with them:
- sit quietly together
- read to them
- listen to their favourite music or radio show
- share memories and photos
- read messages from friends
- tell them how much you love them.
Can friends and family be there when someone dies?
If you’re wondering, “can I be there when a loved one dies?”, the answer is yes. If your relative or friend is in a hospice, the healthcare team will do their best to make sure you can be there if you and they wish. They’re there to look after and support you, as well as the person who is dying.
It’s not always easy to decide whether you want to be there when your loved one dies. Many people do want to be present, but there is no right or wrong answer.
If you’re their main carer, it's good to have an idea of who else wants to be present at the end. That way you can let them know what's happening in case they want to come and visit.
The whole family filled her room for the entire day, we took turns to hold her hand and tell her how much we loved her, to thank her for being the best wife, mum and grandma there was, and we joked and laughed about the past.
A member of our Online Community talking about their grandmaVisit our Online Community
Sometimes, things can move quicker than expected near the end of someone’s life. This means it can be difficult to make sure you, or the people who want to be there, are there.
Try to remember it’s not your fault if you can’t make it. Death can be unpredictable, and it can be hard to know exactly when someone will die.
Supporting yourself during this time
If you're finding things difficult, we're here to help. Our Online Bereavement Community is a safe space to talk to others who understand what you’re going through. You don’t need an account to read what people are saying, but you will need an account if you want to share your own experience of supporting someone who is dying, or coping with your grief.
As well as our Online Community, we also have lots of information about the grieving process on Grief Guide and our website. Plus, our Online Bereavement Counselling Service offers free and professional video counselling to help you process your feelings after a bereavement.