When my mother was a little girl, while sitting in a rocking chair, she accidentally rocked on a kitten and killed it. Her father made her bury it by herself. The result of this horrible first experience is she was terrified of death from that day forward. She passed on that terror to all of her children.
When I was in my thirties my grandfather died and I would not go to the visitation for the traditional viewing because I was scared to see the body. Where did that fear come from? Some of it came from my mother, of course.
Most of us bring our fears, our childhood experiences, our culture, our belief systems, our role models, and our stereotypes to the bedside of the dying and the dead.
Wherever our fears have come from they are generally irrational and emotional. The purpose of this article is to help add some reality to our preconceived ideas of death. In this way we can counter act our fears with knowledge---and knowledge reduces fear.
What does a dying person look like in the hours to minutes before death? Generally they are non responsive, their eyes are partially open, the skin color is palish often with a yellowish or bluish tint, and the skin is cool to cold to the touch. Sometimes the eyes will tear, or you will see just one or two tears in an eye. The person will probably pee or stool as a last release. Their breathing is very slow and often changes to look like a fish breathes with their mouth opening and closing. The breathing gets slower and slower and slower until there are two or three long spaced out breaths. You will think there isn’t going to be another breath, and then there is, which startles everyone. Finally there are no more breaths and the physical life is gone.
With death the body looks the same as it did just a few minutes before but now there is no movement. There are no sounds---all is quiet--unless you move the body. If you turn the body (if you are giving a final bath) the body may make sounds like gurgles or rasps. Those momentary sounds are not life. They are just the body fluids rearranging.
Rigor mortis (body stiffness) begins to occur two to six hours after death. If the body is not embalmed, say for a home funeral, it will begin to relax again after about thirty-six hours. The body temperature begins dropping over a period of hours and will feel cold after about eight hours.
A person generally dies with their eyes partially open. If you try to close the eyes they will slowly open again. That is normal. It is only in the movies that the eye lids stay shut.
There is nothing bad or scary about a dead body. It is only an empty shell, a deserted vehicle. The “driver,” that essence that makes us who we are, is gone. You can feel the emptiness, you can see the emptiness. Life is gone.
Something More... about What Does A Dying Person Look Like?
The Eleventh Hour: A Caring Guideline for the Hours to Minutes Before Death has a more detailed explanation of what happens in the days to hours before a gradual death. This booklet is helpful for families who are alone with their loved one when death occurs. The Family Support Bundle is most helpful for those with a family member who has a life limiting diagnosis or are dying of old age.