The Silent Scream, Grimaces, and Scary Faces As We Die... Why?

Dear Barbara, I can’t get mom’s last minutes out of my head. Just before she died it was like nothing of this earth. It was like she was possessed, a silent scream, totally distorted facially. Have you seen this horror before?

What you described had to be scary for you. Yes, I have seen facial expression changes in the moments before death. Scary faces, grimaces, silent screams. What do I think it is? Here are my thoughts:

There is a labor to dying. It is hard work for us to get out of our body (some harder than others). Think of the little chick that works, struggles to get out of its shell. As we, humans, are dying we are working, struggling also to get out of our bodies. We, the watchers, see the hard work and don't know how to interpret it. As someone who has seen a lot of dying moments I see that struggle as often intense and unexplainable.

I don't think anything bad is happening. Those facial expressions and movements can be ugly and disconcerting but you were witnessing the final release, the final attachment to the physical being let go.

I don't want you to carry that image as something bad. I want you to understand it was optics we can't explain, distortions of the body as it was releasing its hold on this earth.

I can only say from having been at the bedside of hundreds of people that your mother's facial expression was not unusual. I describe it in my booklet Gone From My Sight or my book The Final Act of Living as a grimace or a frown. More detailed descriptions of faces I've seen could be a silent scream, or facial distortions that a Hollywood producer could use in a horror film.

The other side is I have seen smiles, beautiful, peaceful faces. What I learned from seeing all the various moments of death is it doesn't matter what they look like or why. What we are watching is a struggle to end this life connection, to get out of our physical shell. It's like childbirth in reverse. For some the baby just pops out, for other's, mom has to scream and push for hours.

I do not believe your mother would want you to be concentrating on her last moments and forgetting the good moments of her life. Here is an exercise for you: every day write down one good, beautiful, meaningful memory you have from the many years with your mom.

I don’t want that memory of your mom to overshadow all the good.

I assure you nothing bad or evil or even unusual was happening.

Something More... about The Silent Scream, Grimaces, and Scary Faces As We Die... Why?

I wish that more families were educated on what the dying process looks like and what to expect. More patients and families would experience a sacred death. Their grieving would be normal and not complicated. If you are not offered end of life education, ask for it.

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I too was at my moms bedside when she took her last breath and she made a scary expression like something hurt really bad for a second and then went limp. I keep picturing that over and over and it makes me very sad.

barbara karnes

Hi Maria, thank you so much for sharing the dying moments you had with your mom. How beautiful! You met her where she was, supported her and loved her through her birth into the other world. Good work Barbara


I was fortunate to have a wonderful hospice volunteer with me decades ago when my mom passed. She gave me our book and told me what to expect. All went well, and then the final night came and she fought us, literally, to get out of bed, saying she ‘had to go’ and apparently equating that with going to the bathroom. I told her she had a catheter, she frowned and said okay. Several hours later, she was ready to leave, all the lights in the house were flashing wildly, and I told her repeatedly that we were okay and she could go to the party that awaited her. She sighed once and her jaw went slack. I believe we helped her leave by grounding her in reality for one moment, then pointing her to all those waiting in the ‘wings’ for her to release.
Thank you eternally for all your wonderful work.

barbara karnes

Hi Fiona, thank you for sharing your experience of your father’s last breaths. I really liked the “squeezy hug” of welcome. I to believe our loved ones are there to welcome us home. Blessings! Barbara


I was with my dad when he passed in January last year. He gimaced 3 times just as he passed and my mum & I were unsure of what it was. I have taken comfort in thinking of it as you describe but also like to think it was him being welcomed on the other side, wherever that is, by people he knew, his family meeting him. When my kids were small they used to give us a ‘squeezy hug’ so that’s what I think of, he was being hugged tightly by people who loved him and that’s why he made the face. sounds daft I know but he had been unwell for some time and his passing was peaceful for him. I feel very privileged to have been able to be with him as he slipped away.

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