New research reveals the biggest concerns people have when a loved one is dying

One of the main worries people in the UK have when someone close to them is dying is not knowing the physical and mental changes to expect as death draws near, according to our new research, launched today as part of our ongoing #FacingLossTogether campaign.

The findings have prompted us to call for a ‘national conversation’ about death and dying and, where appropriate, greater dialogue between health and care professionals and families about what to expect, and what they can do, as the death of someone close approaches.

Key findings

The research among 1,000 bereaved adults in UK1 found that:

  • over 4 in 10 (44%) of those that had questions or worries wanted to know what physical or mental changes they should expect when someone close to them was near death.

Other key questions and worries included:

  • whether to bring up difficult issues with their dying family member or friend before the end of their life (21%)
  • how to make them more comfortable (58%)
  • whether they should die in a more comforting environment than a hospital ward (18%)
  • the last words they should say to them (40%)
  • who should be there in the final moments (36%).

The public’s quest for information in this area is also underlined by new data showing that our advice on what to expect when death is near was within the top three most viewed information pages on our website during 2017.

"It's time to open up a national conversation on death and dying"

At Sue Ryder, we have a supportive online community for people experiencing bereavement, use of which has more than doubled between 2016 and 2017.

"Death is an inevitable part of all our lives, and yet in modern society we have become far more distanced from the first-hand reality of it," says our Chief Executive Heidi Travis. "It has become a taboo subject that many of us find difficult to broach. It is unsurprising, then, that our survey reveals a significant number of people struggling with uncertainty about what to do when someone close to them is dying.

"It’s really time to open up a national conversation on death and dying with greater education and dialogue. There’s a specific need for more information and communication about the physical and mental signs that may show that death is near," Heidi continues. "This would help to prepare families with different ways they might respond and comfort their loved one. It could also prompt discussions about their last wishes and different ways to help them have a good death.

"NICE guidance and standards already exist to ensure that people nearing the end of their life, along with their families and carers, are communicated with and offered information in an accessible and sensitive way by the health and care system, and there are some very good examples of this happening – but we must ensure this is delivered consistently across the board where appropriate," she concludes.

Signs that death is near

In our experience, dying can be peaceful for many people. Some of the signs that show death is near include:

  • social withdrawal from family and friends
  • a decrease in desire to eat and drink
  • a desire to sleep more, until eventually sleeping deeply and becoming unconscious
  • physical changes (such as fingers and toes becoming a blue colour and cold to touch)
  • changes in breathing: breaths can be more shallow, irregular and may sound noisy
  • restlessness and agitation in some people.

Download our free factsheet

We have produced some new information and advice for families and friends on what to expect, and ways to respond, when someone close to them is dying.

This covers a range of issues including knowing some of the signs (listed above) that death may be nearing, different ways to provide comfort and support, and how to cope/look after yourself.


1 The survey was conducted online by OnePoll among a nationally representative sample of 1,000 UK adults who had experienced the loss of someone close to them.