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What do the days before death look like?

The days and weeks leading up to a person’s death can vary greatly depending on the cause of death and other factors. While the exact experience is unique for each individual, there are some common symptoms and timeline patterns that often emerge during a person’s final days of life. Understanding what to expect as death approaches can help patients and families feel more prepared and less anxious.

General Timeline

For people with terminal illnesses like cancer, studies show the decline often starts 2-3 months before death, with a sharp drop in functioning 1-2 months prior. There is typically a continued steady decline in the final 3 weeks. However, every person’s timeline and exact symptoms will be different. Those dying suddenly from things like heart attack or stroke will follow an even more compressed timeframe.

Physical Symptoms

As the body starts shutting down, people experience a wide range of physical symptoms. Fatigue often increases, and people start spending more time sleeping and less time awake and alert. Loss of appetite is also common, leading to weight loss and muscle wasting. The ability to swallow declines, making eating and drinking more difficult. Breathing may slow down or become uneven. Skin changes like cooling of the arms and legs are also common as circulation decreases.

Mental Changes

In addition to physical symptoms, mental changes often start developing in the weeks and days before death. Confusion and disorientation increase as people start becoming more unaware of time and place. Memory loss gets worse and conversations become more difficult. Hallucinations can also occur as perception changes. Anxiety, depression, and fear increase in some individuals as they realize death is approaching. Restlessness and agitation may also increase during final days.


Pain levels can fluctuate but often increase during the end of life. This is especially true for those suffering from cancer. Fortunately, modern medicine has effective pain management treatments to keep patients comfortable. Communicating about pain is crucial to allow proper dosing of pain medication.

Timeline of the Last 6 Weeks

While the progression varies for each person, below is a general overview of the changes that may happen in the 6 weeks before death:

6 Weeks Out

– Increase in fatigue, feeling weaker
– More time needed sleeping, less time awake and alert
– Appetite starts decreasing, leading to weight loss
– Intermittent pain possibly increasing
– Mental functioning still fair to good if previously healthy
– Those with serious illness have mental decline

4 Weeks Out

– Noticeable increase in fatigue
– Limited ability staying awake, more sleeping
– Swallowing difficulties start, avoid solids
– Increase in confusion and memory problems
– Personality and behavior changes, less social
– Anxiety, depression more noticeable
– Irregular breathing patterns

2 Weeks Out

– Sleeping majority of the time, hard to rouse
– Minimal interest in food or liquids
– Severe fatigue, minimal mobility
– Further mental decline, unaware of self/place
– Possible hallucinations, restlessness
– Breathing irregularities continue

1 Week Out

– Unconscious most or all of the time
– No interest in food, minimal fluid intake
– Skin breakdown, circulation decreases
– Kidney function decreases, less urine output
– Changes in vital signs – blood pressure, pulse
– Congestion in lungs likely

Days Before Death

– Comatose state, unresponsive
– Little to no urine output
– Cheyne-Stokes breathing pattern common
– Mottling of skin from low circulation
– Drop in blood pressure
– Irregular heartbeat or respiratory rate

Factors Influencing Timeline

The exact timeline and symptoms can vary significantly based on the following factors:

Cause of Death

– Cancer patients see a more gradual decline over weeks
– Organ failure can follow a similar course if illness is prolonged
– Sudden deaths like heart attack or stroke have immediate loss of consciousness


– Home deaths allow natural progression with less interventions
– Hospital deaths may prolong timeline with treatments


– Pain medication and sedatives can speed up declines
– Cardiovascular and other treatments may briefly prolong dying

Pre-existing Health

– Younger, healthier people often have shorter declines
– Older adults with serious illness tend to decline slower
– Debilitated individuals may follow quicker timelines

Support Care

– Good palliative care can ease some symptoms of dying
– Poor symptom management can worsen discomfort

Common Symptoms

Below are some of the most prevalent symptoms as death nears:


Overwhelming fatigue and exhaustion are almost universal during the dying process. As the body starts shutting down, people have little energy for activities or interaction. Lying down to rest and preserve calories becomes the primary activity. Dozing intermittently becomes the main way to pass time, while conscious alertness diminishes.

Loss of Appetite

Along with fatigue, people experience a dramatic drop in appetite and thirst. The body loses the desire and ability to eat as digestion slows down. Swallowing becomes difficult too. Weight loss results from not eating. Food intake drops steadily in the final weeks, with minimal intake in the last days. People mainly stop eating solid foods and may only take small amounts of fluids until all intake ceases.

Mental Decline

Worsening confusion, disorientation and memory loss signals the final descent. Conversations and connections become harder as consciousness fades in and out. Hallucinations may occur. Anxiety over leaving loved ones can increase, along with restlessness. Fears about death arise for some while others gain acceptance. Saying goodbye and last words are important.

Breathing Changes

Breathing patterns fluctuate as the body struggles to function. Cheyne-Stokes respirations with alternating shallow fast breaths and deep slow breaths are common. Congestion in the lungs from fluid buildup creates noisy breathing. The respiratory rate decreases. Periods of no breathing for 10-30 seconds may happen. Breathing often becomes the focus, with medicines to ease air hunger.

Skin Changes

Circulation slows, causing the skin to become pale, cool, and mottled. Darkening of the skin, especially the hands and feet, occurs. Skin breakdown increases without movement. Dryness, itching, and sweating are other changes. Lips and nails may turn bluish. The underside of the body grows darker.

Supportive Care

While each person’s end-of-life experience will be different, high-quality palliative care can ease many concerning symptoms. Below are some important ways to support the dying:

Managing Pain

Giving pain medication like morphine is crucial to minimize suffering. Doses can be carefully titrated to ensure comfort. Communicating about pain is essential.

Reducing Anxiety

Talking about fears, listening to music, guided imagery, and other relaxation techniques can help reduce worry. Sedatives may be needed for extreme anxiety or restlessness.

Maintaining Oral Health

Keeping the lips and mouth moist helps food intake and communication. Ice chips, lip balm, mists, and mouth swabs improve dryness.

Positioning for Comfort

Pillows, cushions, and repositioning ease discomfort and aid breathing as movement declines. Bony areas can be protected from pressure.

Offering Emotional Support

Holding hands, being present, listening, reminiscing, reading aloud and spiritual rituals provide comfort to the dying. Saying goodbye and I love you are important.

Week Before Death Changes
6 Weeks Out Increased fatigue and weakness, more sleep needed, decreased appetite and weight loss, mild pain, good mental functioning if previously healthy, mental decline if seriously ill
4 Weeks Out Noticeable increase in fatigue, limited awake time, swallowing issues, increased confusion and memory loss, personality/behavior changes, irregular breathing
2 Weeks Out Sleeping most of time, disinterest in food/liquids, severe fatigue and minimal mobility, mental decline, possible hallucinations and restlessness, breathing irregularities
1 Week Out Unconscious most or all the time, no interest in food with minimal fluid intake, skin breakdown, decreased circulation, decreased kidney function and urine output, changes in vital signs, congestion likely
Final Days Comatose unresponsive state, little to no urine output, Cheyne-Stokes breathing, skin mottling from poor circulation, dropping blood pressure and irregular heartbeat/breathing


The final weeks and days before death follow a general declining trajectory but vary significantly between individuals based on overall health, cause of death, care provided, and other factors. Typical symptoms like fatigue, appetite loss, mental changes, breathing irregularities, and skin breakdown progress over time. High-quality palliative care focusing on comfort and quality of life is essential during the dying process. Understanding common end-of-life changes helps patients and families feel prepared for what is to come.