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What is Active Dying?

Active dying is the final phase of the dying process. While the pre-active stage lasts for about three weeks, the active stage of dying lasts roughly three days. By definition, actively dying patients are very close to death, and exhibit many signs and symptoms of near-death. For instance, actively dying patients are often times unresponsive, and their blood pressure often drops significantly.

Below is a list of some of the typical signs of active dying. While a patient may not experience all of the signs below, this list will help the patient’s loved ones and caregivers in recognizing and defining active dying. Additionally, if you have more questons about "what is active dying" and how to identify the process, you can talk to an expert by choosing one of the options in the blue bar above.

What are the symptoms of active dying?

The signs and symptoms of active dying include:

  • Long pauses in breathing; patient’s breathing patterns may also be very irregular
  • Blood pressure drops significantly
  • Patient’s skin changes color (mottling) and their extremities may feel cold to the touch
  • Patient is in a coma, or semi-coma, or cannot be awoken
  • Urinary and bowel incontinence and/or decrease in urine; urine may also be discolored
  • Hallucinations, delirium, and agitation
  • Build-up of fluid in the lungs, which may cause unusual gurgling sounds

Predicting active dying.

While understanding what to expect by learning the signs and symptoms of active dying can be helpful, predicting active dying is still difficult. As stated previously, a patient may not exhibit all the signs above. In some cases, the patient may actually state that he or she is dying. Often times the patient’s position will become rigid, indicating the time of death has approached.

As a loved one and/or caregiver of the patient, it’s important that you talk with the nurses and physicians regarding their condition. They can help in identifying when someone is indeed actively dying, and explain additional ways to help you and your loved one.

If you haven’t done so already, we recommend contacting a hospice provider who can help your loved one by addressing their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs at the end-of-life.

How can you predict the end of life? Download a free guide.

End-of-Life signs by disease.

Learn about the specific end-of-life signs of common diseases and illnesses:

More end-of-life resources.