Death is the natural end result of life, but that doesn’t make it any easier, especially for the families of hospice patients. While family members may have come to terms with the eventual outcome of hospice care and are confident that staff are doing everything they can to comfort and care for their loved ones, the question remains: Is pain part of dying? What happens when patients reach the end of their lives and depart this mortal coil?
Is Death Painful?
Does dying hurt? It’s a common question for the family members of hospice patients. They’re worried that their loved ones won’t go gently into that good night, but instead will experience pain and suffering as they leave this world.
Thankfully, pain appears to be the exception rather than the rule. According to recent research from the University of Wollongong, just 2.5 percent of patients reported “severe pain” in their last few days prior to their passing, as compared to six percent at the start of their hospice care.1 Much more common than pain was fatigue; just over 8 percent of patients reported significant fatigue near the end of life.
While pre-existing illnesses and other conditions can cause pain, the process of dying occurs naturally as the body begins to shut down. The desire to eat and drink tends to wane, even as patients sleep more.2 Their pulse will weaken and their breathing will slow, but this process isn’t marked by suffering. Instead, it’s a slow decline that, may be difficult to watch, but is rarely painful to experience.
How Compassionate Hospice Care Can Help
While research shows that severe pain isn’t common among hospice patients nearing their end of life, family members remain understandably worried about their condition — they don’t simply want their loved ones to avoid pain; they want them to be as comfortable as possible.
Hospice providers can help by ensuring that patients are given effective medications to minimize any discomfort or pain. According to the National Institute on Aging, the focus of care for those experiencing pain during their last days or weeks should be on relieving that pain rather than worrying about the long-term impacts of specific drugs or treatments.3 Not only does effective pain management help reduce stress for family members but also makes it possible for patients to better enjoy their last few days with loved ones.
It’s also helpful for hospice staff to talk with patients and their families about pain and pain management strategies. While prescription medications are one option, other techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, or even the use of new virtual reality technologies can help reduce pain and allow patients to focus on the positives.
Family Grief Counseling and Care
Finally, hospice support for families can extend to family grief counseling that can help patients’ loved ones navigate the difficult weeks and months after their passing. By hearing the stories of other families who have endured similar losses and were with patients at the end of their life, families can begin to process the powerful emotions that come with the experience of death.
Pain is rarely part of dying, but hospice providers can help alleviate family concerns with comprehensive medication strategies, pain management plans, and post-loss hospice counseling services.
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1 University of Wollongong Australia, “No, Most People Aren’t in Severe Pain When They Die,” December 11, 2017.
2 Hospice Foundation of America (HFA), “Signs of Approaching Death,” 2018.
3 National Institute on Aging (NIA), “Providing Care and Comfort at the End of Life,” December 17, 2021.