Our bodies are amazing yet complex vehicles that have many systems working together that allow us to thrive- until it is time for the physical body to die. The brain and body will then work together to assist in shutting down the body as opposed to assisting it in survival. When the shift occurs reduced nutritional intake is one sign we often witness first.
Our body knows that we need nutrition in order to live and sustain life; therefore, the brain sends out signals to our body that we are hungry and our stomachs often “growl” as we feel the pangs of our hunger. However, our body also knows when we are dying; therefore, the brain no longer sends those signals and the body no longer feels the pangs of hunger.
This process, although alarming to the family, is actually a safety measure so that food and additional liquids will not cause harmful symptoms as the body shuts down. If force feeding, or feeding tubes continue once the body begins its dying process, the food and fluids will not be processed by the body and will then, particularly fluid, build up in the body. You may noticed increased fluids in the underneath the skin of arms and legs, and also the lungs and throat causing more pronounced gurgling. Allowing someone to determine when they stop eating will actually reduce some of these symptoms.
It is a normal progression of the dying process and your loved one is not suffering. Allow your loved one to eat when they want or to enjoy what is most pleasurable to them, such as chocolate or ice cream. In hospice, this is called pleasure feeding. It gives comfort to the family by allowing them to feel like they are providing some type of nutrition at the same time, allowing your loved one a sense of pleasure through taste. It is said that the “sweet” taste bud is the last one that remains with us. You may notice that near end-of-life, sweet foods are the only thing your loved one may eat. However, at some point, your loved one may no longer want those pleasure foods or will not be able to swallow them, it is normal, and there is no pain or suffering associated with this.
Allow your loved one to lead the way, their body is doing what is natural for it to do and force feeding will not stop this process. Have an understanding that you are not the cause of their death by not feeding them when they do not want to eat. Do not allow yourself to feel guilt by not being able to control this process or change what is happening. Provide gentle touch, love, appreciation, and affection during this process – nutrition of the spirit is what is truly needed the most.