A vigil is defined as a period of time when an individual or a group remains in a place and waits, prays, etc.  An end of life vigil is when an individual or group stays with a person during their last hours.  While many hospitals and hospices often have vigil volunteers who sit with dying individuals, close family members often do it themselves.

The purpose of an end of life vigil is to provide comfort for the dying person in physical, psychological, and spiritual terms.

If this is an experience you will be facing, here is a simple list of suggestions you might find helpful in preparation and in gaining some perspective of what to expect.  These are only suggestions, as each experience is different, depending on the individual.

Provide a Tranquil Environment

You will want to keep the room as quiet as possible, preferably with soft lighting.  Typically, you want a minimal number of people in the room so that things do not become too overwhelming.


Talk with the dying individual, even if he or she is in a coma.  There are strong indications that individuals in a coma can still hear your voice and are aware of what is happening around them.  Speak from a place of love and forgiveness, and not from a place of anger.  If you don’t know what to say, read to the individual.  Perhaps choose their favorite book, or one of yours to enjoy together.  If the individual is awake and interactive, you can enjoy reminiscing together.  Please remember that it’s okay to laugh together.  Remembering the good times you shared together can be a wonderful way to spend your last hours together.

Provide Pain Management

You don’t want your loved one to spend their last hours in pain.  Talk with the doctors, nurses, hospice personnel, or end-of-life doulas about how to best manage your loved one’s pain.  Signs to watch for that indicate that your loved one might be in pain include shifting on the bed, grimaces, muscle spasms, or a high temperature.

Provide Physical Comfort

Dying individuals typically breathe through the mouth, resulting in a dry mouth, which can be very uncomfortable.  To keep the mouth moist you might want to use a glycerin swab around the mouth and on the gums.  You can apply a lip balm so his or her lips do not become dry and cracked.

Gently Clean the Dying

Use a damp cloth to gently wash the arms, hands, feet, legs, face, and neck of your loved one.  It is best to use a lukewarm cloth if he or she is feverish or a warm cloth if he or she is cold.  After, applying a mild moisturizer helps his or her skin feel clean and soft.  The process also provides comfort through your touch and the feeling of a light massage, helping the dying individual feel loved and cared for.

Open a Window

Obviously, not the best idea if it is extremely cold outside, but many dying individuals (and those sitting vigil) find the scent of fresh air very soothing.  If it is not possible to open a window, perhaps have a small fan running to keep the air moving and help the air feel as fresh as possible.  Avoid any overpowering scents.

Take a Break

Taking a break can be beneficial for both yourself and your loved one.  Your loved one may appreciate having a few moments to him or herself and taking a break gives you the opportunity to take a shower, eat a meal, or go for a walk.  You will find yourself better able to handle the vigil if you give yourself the opportunity for periodic short breaks.

Respect any Spiritual or Religious Values

It is important to remember and respect any spiritual or religious values held by your loved one, and to honor those values.  Your loved one may want to have Last Rites administered, someone to pray with him or her, receive counseling, spend time in meditation, and the list goes on.  Be sure to honor those wishes, no matter what your own personal beliefs happen to be.

Participating in an end of life vigil can be a daunting idea, but hopefully these ideas will help you prepare for the experience, and make it one that leaves you feeling peaceful.