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  • Writer's pictureCayla Townes

Death Vigil Planning: Supporting Others in their Final Moments

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

Losing a loved one is an incredibly difficult experience, and providing support during their final moments is a crucial part of ensuring their comfort and peace. Death vigil planning involves creating a calm and nurturing environment for the person dying, addressing their physical and emotional needs, and respecting their individual beliefs and wishes. In this article, we will explore various aspects of vigil planning to help you navigate this challenging time with empathy and understanding.



Physical Comfort: Providing Ease & Relief

Pain Management

One of the most crucial aspects of vigil planning is pain management. Collaborating with healthcare professionals, such as doctors, nurses, and/or hospice providers is essential in ensuring that your loved one receives the appropriate medications to alleviate discomfort.


Signs of physical discomfort or pain may include restlessness, facial grimacing, or muscle spasms. Observing these signs, documenting them, and communicating them to the medical team can help in adjusting the pain/symptom management plan accordingly. Additionally, keeping track of any changes in body temperature or dehydration can provide valuable insights into the comfort level of the person dying.


If you are unfamiliar with hospice services or unsure about how to access them, refer to resources like What is Hospice? How Do I Get It? for guidance and information.


Caring for the Mouth

During the final stages of life, individuals often breathe through their mouths, leading to dryness and discomfort. To provide relief, regularly swab the dying person's mouth and gums with a glycerin swab to maintain moisture. Additionally, applying a non-wax based lip balm can prevent dryness and cracking. Keeping a supply of glycerin swabs and lip balm at the bedside and using them at regular intervals can help ensure the person's comfort.


Gentle Cleansing for a Sense of Care

While sitting vigil, gently washing the face, neck, arms, hands, feet, and legs of the dying person with a damp cloth can provide a sense of cleanliness and care. If the person is feverish, use a lukewarm cloth, and if they feel cold, use a warm cloth. After cleansing, applying a light moisturizer to their face, hands, arms, legs, and feet can keep their skin feeling soft and nurtured. This act of cleansing and moisturizing also allows for the gift of touch through gentle massage, if this is desired by and comfortable for the person dying.


Setting the Tone: Creating Warmth & Comfort

A Peaceful Environment

Maintaining a peaceful environment is essential during the death vigil. Keep the room quiet, lower the lighting if possible, and request that visitors speak softly. Avoid loud noises and harsh lights, as they can be overwhelming for both the person dying and the family members present. Limiting the number of people in the room at one time is also crucial, as excessive crowding can cause anxiety and distress for everyone involved.


Sometimes, the person dying prefers a more boisterous, lively environment in which to spend their final days. Their preferences should be kept in mind and adhered to as much as possible. They like hearing children running and laughing around the house? Then let the kids run and play!


Allowing Time Alone

While it may be challenging to step away from the side of the person dying, it is important to recognize their need for solitude during the transition. Taking short breaks from the vigil can help you sustain your own well-being and provide the necessary space for the person who is dying. Utilize these breaks to take a walk outside, get fresh air, shower, change clothes, connect with friends or family, engage in self-care activities, or find solace in quiet meditation or prayer.


Embracing Fresh Air

In many cultural traditions, it is believed that keeping a window partially open in the room where someone is dying allows the souls of departed loved ones to guide the transitioning soul into the next life. Regardless of specific beliefs, fresh air is beneficial for both the person dying and those attending the vigil. Open a window, even if just slightly, to maintain a flow of fresh air and prevent the room from becoming stale. Avoid using overly fragrant flowers or other strong scents, as they may overwhelm the senses. Consider using a small fan to circulate the air and ensure a fresh and tranquil environment.


The Role of Music in the Vigil

Music can be a powerful tool in creating an atmosphere of peace and tranquility during the death vigil. Play music softly and avoid placing speakers too near the dying person's head or ears, depending on their preference. If the dying person expresses a desire for a more lively atmosphere with music and conversation, honor their wishes accordingly.


Hearing is the last sense to leave us as we die, so it is important to be vigilant about maintaining the desired auditory environment of the person dying .



Spiritual Needs: Attending to Beliefs and Desires

Honoring Religious and Spiritual Values

Religious and spiritual practices hold significant importance for many individuals during the dying process. To support your loved one's beliefs, inquire whether they desire a visit from a religious or spiritual advisor. It is essential to ask this question well in advance, as arranging such visits may require time. These visits can involve receiving sacraments, engaging in prayer, seeking healing, resolving spiritual conflicts, counseling, or receiving energy work, such as Reiki. Respecting and facilitating these requests can bring comfort and solace to the person who is dying.


Embracing Visions and Spirituality

As individuals approach death, they may experience visions or encounters with deceased loved ones. These encounters are deeply personal and can provide immense comfort. If the dying person shares these experiences, refrain from dismissing them or arguing about their reality. Instead, offer reassurance that their departed loved ones are present to guide them on their journey. Embracing these visions as signs of comfort and support can bring solace to both the person dying and their loved ones.


Understanding the Desire to "Go Home"

It is common for individuals who are dying to express a desire to "go home," even if they are already in their own residence. This statement often signifies their readiness to leave their physical bodies and the suffering associated with them. While it can be disconcerting to hear this repeated request, it is important to understand and respond with compassion.


If the person attempts to get out of bed, expressing an urgent need to "leave now" or "go home," it is essential to prioritize their safety. Instead of outright denying their request, you can gently place your hand a few inches above their shoulder, creating a physical barrier. This often prevents them from exerting further effort to get up. If the person becomes demanding or agitated, consult with their medical team about what may be done to ensure their safety.


Offer reassurance that they have the choice to leave their body whenever they are ready. Repeating this message throughout the vigil, especially during your absence from the room, can provide comfort and peace of mind.


Staying Connected: Providing Support & Companionship

The Power of Communication

Maintaining communication with the person dying is essential, even if they are in a coma or unresponsive. Many believe that individuals in this state can still hear and comprehend their surroundings. Speak from your heart, expressing compassion, forgiveness, and love. Think carefully about bringing up past hurts or grievances, as it is not always conducive to the emotional well-being of either party.


Reading to the person dying can also be a meaningful way to connect. If they are responsive or in a coma, consider reading aloud their favorite books, poems, or spiritual texts. For guidance on appropriate reading material, refer to resources like What to Read to a Person Who is Dying?. Laughter can also be a powerful tool in fostering connection and reminiscing about joyful moments shared with your loved one. Find solace in laughter and celebrate their life.


The Power of Technology

In an age of advanced technology, video calling services like Zoom, Google Meet, or Facetime offer a unique opportunity for loved ones who cannot physically be present during the death vigil. Setting up a laptop or mobile device in the room of the dying person and using video conferencing platforms can allow remote family members and friends to share in the vigil. This virtual presence fosters a sense of togetherness, shared decision-making, and emotional support during this challenging time.


Note: Internet access may not be available in some healthcare facilities. In such cases, consider creating a hotspot using a mobile device to enable video conferencing services.


Coping with Complex Relationships: Abusers and Abandoners

When faced with the impending death of an abuser or abandoner, you have the right to choose whether or not to attend their deathbed. Your decision should prioritize your own emotional well-being. Forgiveness, if offered, is a personal choice, and no one can force it upon you. Resources like When Your Abuser or Abandoner Dies: How to Cope can provide valuable guidance and support during this challenging phase.


After Death

Preparing the Body with Love and Respect

Once your person has passed away, taking time to sit with their body allows for a personal process of saying goodbye. Some individuals may choose to wash the body in preparation for burial, while others may prefer to have funerary professionals handle this task. It is essential to respect personal boundaries and preferences during this sensitive time. If an outfit was not picked-out ahead of time, select clothing that holds significance or comfort for your loved one to be buried or cremated in.


Embracing Mixed Emotions

After the vigil and the passing of a loved one, it is common to experience a mix of emotions. Feeling relief that their suffering has ended is a natural response, even as you grieve their loss. Acknowledge and validate the relief you feel, as it signifies your love and concern for their well-being. Embrace any feelings of euphoria that may arise, recognizing the profound significance of the experience you have been part of. Allow yourself to grieve, laugh, cry, and find solace in journaling, meditation, or connecting with others who can offer support during this complex time.


In the End

Remember to honor the wishes of the person who died, communicate with compassion, and find solace in the shared memories and experiences that defined your relationship. Embrace the mix of emotions that arise after their passing, and seek comfort in the knowledge that you helped provide a loving and nurturing presence during their transition.



Not Just for Others: Planning for Your Own Vigil

Death vigil planning is a deeply personal and emotional journey. By figuring out your priorities for your own death vigil, you can provide those caring for you with the things you need to feel supported in your dying. This offers those caring for you a special gift: knowing how to care for you at the end of your life.


If you're interested in planning a death vigil but aren't sure where to start, please feel free to reach out to me and I can help you get started.


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