Changes at the Time of Death

Changes at the Time of Death

Knowing what to expect can help you deal with death. There are some common changes at the end of life. Over time as a serious illness progresses, you may need more care or to provide more care. Symptoms may change in frequency and severity. Doctors and nurses can help you in managing any change in symptoms as you or the person you care for approaches death. It may also help if you talk to a doctor about any things that are worrying you.

Changes at the end

As a person is dying, they will experience changes. It is important that the person who is ill is free of symptoms like pain and nausea. Many people prefer to be alert. They like to be able to talk with those around them.

There are common changes that most people will go through. Click on the boxes below to learn more. However, remember that each person’s death is individual, just as their life is.

Signs that they are dying

Signs that they are dying

As a person is dying, they will experience changes. They may become:

  • Sleepy
  • Detached from reality
  • Unaware of what is happening around them
  • Less talkative
  • Agitated or confused
  • Less interested in eating and drinking.

They may have changes in:

  • Skin colour
  • Circulation (this is blood flow), and their skin may be cool to touch
  • Breathing (this can include a change to noisy breathing)
Knowing when death has occurred

Knowing when death has occurred

Death has occurred when:

  • Breathing stops
  • The person cannot be woken up
  • There is no pulse or heart beat
  • The person’s pupils are fixed

Dying at home

Something to consider is whether the setup is going to be hard to manage. At times, home may start to feel like a hospital. There may be extra equipment being supplied. There may be more and frequent visits from health professionals. Do not be afraid to ask questions. You might want to know how to create a comfortable space and how to manage care and medication. You might want know what changes you may notice and what you can do.

In the last few days

Often there are signs that death is imminent, and you can get family and friends together. Sometimes though, a person will die quickly without some of the warning signs. You may want to sit with the dying person, sometimes for many hours.

Immediately after a death

What you need to do will depend on where the death occurs.

Dying in a hospital or aged care facility

An expected death in a hospital or aged care facility is not an emergency. In this case the staff handle most things and advise family what they need to do.

How long the body can be kept will vary. Staff will usually allow you time with the person. If there are certain religious or cultural requirements that are important to you at this time let staff know. Staff will help you to arrange for a doctor's certificate and for the body to be moved in line with any funeral arrangements.

Death at home

If the person's death was expected, then there is no need to hurry. You can call their doctor to ask them to visit as soon as possible. Either the doctor or the palliative care service can then arrange for the doctor's certificate showing cause of death to be completed. After this you can contact a funeral director if that is planned.

If there is no doctor available, then you will need to call the police. The police will refer the case to the coroner and the coroner will determine cause of death and complete the doctor's certificate. This is a legal requirement when a doctor is not available. There does not have to be anything suspicious about the death for the Coroner to be involved.


A funeral cannot be arranged without a doctor's certificate. It is not the same as the official death certificate issued by the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages in your state and confirming that the death has been registered.