- Cancer Information
- Advanced cancer
- Facing end of life
- Caring for someone who is dying
- Providing physical support
- Choosing the moment to die
Choosing the moment to die
Sometimes people appear to pick the moment to die. You may have heard stories of some people holding out until a particular relative or friend arrives at their bedside, or until a special occasion occurs, before dying. Others appear to wait until their family or friends have left the room or at a time when there are few people around.
It can be very upsetting if you’ve been sitting with someone for many days, and they die while you are taking a break. You may feel guilty or regretful for not being there for them at that crucial moment, but it may help to know that this might be how they wanted it to be.
What happens at death
No-one really knows what death feels like, but we know what death looks like from those who have nursed a dying relative or friend. You can ask a palliative care team member or nurse to talk you through it.
The person’s breathing will stop, although they may stop breathing for a time and then take one or two final breaths. As soon as the heart stops beating, the body rapidly cools and becomes pale.
Many carers say it was a profoundly moving experience and a privilege to be with someone at the moment of death. The memory of the final moments are likely to stay with you for a long time.
We had all surrounded my father-in-law’s bedside, then we started to share the vigil in turns. When there were fewer people around, he passed away.Judith
Podcast: Caring for Someone in Their Last Months
Prof Jane Phillips, Head, School of Nursing and Professor, Centre for Healthcare Transformation, Queensland University of Technology and Emerita Professor Palliative Nursing, University of Technology Sydney, NSW; Prof Meera Agar, Palliative Care Physician, Professor of Palliative Medicine, University of Technology Sydney, IMPACCT, Sydney, NSW; Sandra Anderson, Consumer; A/Prof Megan Best, The University of Notre Dame Australia and The University of Sydney, NSW; Prof Lauren Breen, Psychologist and Discipline Lead, Psychology, Curtin University, WA; David Dawes, Manager, Spiritual Care Department, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Rob Ferguson, Consumer; Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar, Counsellor, Psychotherapist and Social Worker, One Life Counselling & Psychotherapy, NSW; Justine Hatton, Senior Social Worker, Southern Adelaide Palliative Services, Flinders Medical Centre, SA; Caitlin MacDonagh, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Palliative Care, Royal North Shore Hospital, Northern Sydney Local Health District, NSW; McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer; Palliative Care Australia; Belinda Reinhold, Acting Lead Palliative Care, Cancer Council QLD; Xanthe Sansome, National Program Director, Advance Care Planning Australia; Kirsty Trebilcock, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.