We bring our fears, our childhood experiences with death, our culture, our belief systems, and our stereotypes to the bedside of the dying and the dead. Generally, none of that is actually how people die.
Wherever our fears have come from they are mostly irrational and emotional. The purpose of this article is to help add some reality to our preconceived ideas of death. We can challenge our fears with knowledge---and knowledge reduces fear.
What does a dying person look like in the hours to minutes before death? Typically, 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 (when 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 usually 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 eyelids 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.
The Eleventh Hour: A Caring Guideline for the Hours to Minutes Before Death has a detailed explanation of what happens in the days to hours before a gradual death.
Something More... about What Does Death Look Like?
“The Eleventh Hour” is the companion booklet to "Gone From My Sight: The Dying Experience" together they have been shown to significantly improve CAHPS scores, family survey results and meet Medicare requirements for consistent family education. Agencies/hospices put these two booklets together in their initial family packets to inform families on the signs of approaching death and how to care for a loved one who is dying. All booklets are available in booklet form and/or as an ebook.