Doctor shares glimpse into death: ‘The lines on their face relax’

Palliative care photo
Just like birth is a process, dying is a process too says palliative care physician Dr Katherine Allsopp.

Reader discretion: This story contains sensitive content about death, particularly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

You may have heard about the light at the end of the tunnel and that it could feel like falling – but do you know what really happens when a person passes away?

On a mission to find out, The Pulse interviewed Westmead Hospital palliative care expert and physician Dr Katherine Allsopp.

Dr Allsopp said many families think it will be sudden or awful but it is usually quite the opposite.

“Depending on the cause of death, the process is a transition to dying,” Dr Allsopp said.

“Just like birth is a process, death is a process too … it can happen over days or for some people, over a couple of weeks.

“Usually, the first sign is the withdrawal from the physical environment … less eating and talking and more sleeping and staying in bed. 

“This is when the organs start shutting down – usually starting with the kidneys and the brain … circulation slows down and the heart eventually stops – this is the last thing to happen.”

Dr Allsopp said there are physical signs that alert nurses and clinicians to the fact that a person has passed away.

“We can tell when someone has died because their breathing often slows down and then stops,” she said.

“Their colour also changes because the circulation has ceased. 

“They actually look younger in the face when this happens because the worn lines in their face relax. 

“This is particularly obvious in patients who have been very unwell for some time and have lost weight.

“When they die they look serene and peaceful … families are often pleasantly relieved when their family member is finally at peace.” 

Dr Katherine Allsopp.
Dr Katherine Allsopp.

Dr Allsopp said her team has witnessed many interesting and heart-warming final requests for comfort from patients.

“We’ve had people bring in a bottle of Jack Daniels, a beer or they have requested to bring in their beloved pets,” she said.

“One of the most beautiful things we’ve seen is a patient pass away just after holding their newborn grandchild in their arms … this makes everyone cry in the ward … it’s just too beautiful for words.” 

The requests are part of the comforting care provided by the supportive and palliative care team at Westmead Hospital, who keep on top of a patient’s pain and other symptoms. 

“We are focused on helping the patient live as long as we can … we help people with life-limiting illness to live well,” said Dr Allsopp. 

“It’s also about respecting their wishes for comfort … if they want to pass away at home we will accommodate that through our community program. 

“The fact is, 100 per cent of humans will die … this is a statistic we just can’t avoid – so in some ways, we all need to prepare for that.” 

This week is National Palliative Care Week. This year’s theme is ‘What matters most?’ – find out more from Palliative Care Australia here: