Deathbed etiquette

Being by the bedside of someone you love who is dying is a unique privilege, but it isn’t easy.

To help a little we have drawn on the wisdom and experience of those who have done it before. We have taken advice from leading palliative care consultants, nurses, chaplains, friends and relatives.

  • Be attentive to what your loved one wants – you are there to support them.
  • If something concerns you about your loved one, seek out help or advice.
  • Sitting at the bedside can be exhausting so try to eat, drink and take regular breaks.
  • Aim to create some personal space around the bed, particularly if your loved one is in hospital.
  • Don’t feel you have to sit in silence – gentle background conversation or music can be comforting.
  • Organise a regular email or set up a WhatsApp group to update family and friends.
  • Consider bringing small children for a brief visit and inviting older ones.
  • Let your loved one sleep – they may be sleeping a lot in the last days.
  • The dying person may speak about dead relatives coming to meet them – listen and don’t be afraid.
  • Remember those important last words that you, and they, might like to say: ‘thank you, I’m sorry, I love you’.
  • Holding your loved one’s hand is often more powerful than words.
  • Don’t be surprised if your loved one dies when you are out of the room – it happens a lot.
  • Be prepared for a change in breathing patterns – it’s normal for your loved one to stop breathing and then restart and this may sound like a gasp. It indicates the terminal phase of their illness.
  • Be prepared also for their breathing to sound laboured and for a gurgling sound caused by fluid building up at the back of their throat.
  • Reassure your loved one that they are free to let go – this ‘permission’ is often taken.

Further reading on death bed etiquette.

Additional resources

Living with the knowledge that death is close at hand can take a huge emotional toll. These resources will help you through the experience of facing death.