Dear Barbara, my mom recently passed away while surrounded by her kids and husband. I cannot stop replaying her last moments over and over again in my head. I know this is normal. However, she had a disease that impacted her speech and for a week before she died, she could not speak at all and slept constantly. Then, minutes before she died, she gave a few whimpers and shed one tear. My brother and I are tormented by this, as we want to know why these things both happened. Why the whimpers? Why the tear? She had an incredibly strong Christian faith, so I am trying to reassure myself that it was not sadness, but perhaps, joy and awe. Or maybe she was just simply sad to leave her kids and husband. I know we will never know. But I am wondering if you could speak on any similar experiences you have witnessed of either or both of these things.
It is interesting to me how much importance we all seem to place on the last few minutes before physical life ends. You are not the first person to ask me about what occurred during a loved one's last moments. We witness the tears, the facial expressions, the sounds, the grimaces. Yet we are so often unaware of those very expressions as life progresses on its routine daily basis. It isn’t until life is ending that we become observant.
What happens at the moment of death or in the hours before death, is generally just normal body actions. A tear is natural -- the eyes are partially open and have been for days or even weeks. There is a drying out of the eyes and the body is trying very hard to produce moisture. Without blinking (and the eyes are not blinking) moisture accumulates and rolls down the cheek producing a tear (generally not a lot of “tears” because the body is dehydrated and not functioning as it normally would).
It seems poetic to believe the tear is sadness or emotionally based. I believe the “tear” is physiologically based. The person at the moment of death is so withdrawn from their body that they are not expressing emotions or even feeling emotions. Their work is that of the little chick working to get out of the shell. They have already withdrawn from what goes on around them days or even weeks before this moment.
The “whimpers” are part of the sounds of dying, no more, no less. Sighs, moans, gurgles, and soundless cries are all part of the normal, natural way a person dies. We, with our fear and deep sadness of the moment, react and hold on to every expression as if it has meaning. It doesn’t.
What does have meaning and is important is that the person who is actively dying can, on some unconscious level, hear. Imagine standing outside watching and experiencing a beautiful piece of nature. You are caught up in the splendor of the moment and from a distance you hear someone speaking to you, calling to you. You hear but softly from a distance. I believe that is how the person actively dying hears us. We, the watchers, need to say what is in our hearts (hopeful we have taken the opportunity to do that long before this moment) and then after we have said our goodbyes just be a presence. Touch, hold, be love as we walk to the end of life with our special person.
Something more about Whimpers and Tears...
When a loved one enters the dying process, it would be so helpful to know what to expect, what to look for. After being at the bedside of hundreds of deaths, I decided to write a hand book for families to help them navigate these waters. Gone From My Sight is the first and most widely used handbook on the signs of approaching death. Churches, families, social workers, nurses, chaplains need this book. Do you have yours?
Hi Amanda, in response to your questions about the last minutes before your father’s death; from what you described nothing bad, or pathological was happening. It was sad and I can see why it was confusing to you (having seen your mother die differently) but he died the way so many die. His eyes being open is how most people die—one eye open, one eye partially closed, both eyes wide open, both eyes partially closed, so many different ways but mostly open in some form. I do believe he knew you were there. For him all was like a dream. He could hear but like you would hear and be aware if you were not quite awake from a deep dream, all distant and detached. I also believe he knew and felt your love and support. It was a comfort to have you there as he left this world. You might write him a letter. Put all your love and concerns and tears down on paper. Burn the letter and scatter the ashes to the wind. My blessings are with you. Barbara
I just came across your blog writeup and read through the comments. It was really helpful, as I’ve been replaying my dad’s last night over and over again, and I’ve been so distressed. When my mom passed away 18 years ago of brain cancer, her eyes had been closed and she was very peaceful as her breathing slowed down. My dad passed away unexpectedly last week – he had overcome lymphoma and he was getting ready for rehabilitation, but ended up in the hospital with a “storm” of complications. I arrived from out of state the day beforehand, when his speech had become very garbled. The few days prior, he had been very confused, asking again and again what was happening, but also fully aware that he was confused and asking if he would be ok. And on his last night, his eyes were fully open and staring, with various moaning sounds all night. He did shed one tear, and Ive been replaying that over and over again with grief, and it helped to read your explanation. I was wondering about two other things- one, he was trying to get words out but my brother and I couldn’t really understand him. I think he said I love you back to us, and I think he said “stop, I don’t want to fight anymore,” and I said, it’s ok dad and just tried to reassure him we were there and hugging him- which is something I did not do the entire 6 months of visiting, due to the pandemic. It is just breaking my heart because he seemed aware of what was happening, but he was also just staring with his eyes wide open. When I would say something, he would open his one eye wider. And when I kissed him, he puckered his lips. Was he hearing me and understanding me? Did he know what was happening, or were they just reflexes? And his other eye was horrible – his pupil bulged and looked like it would be so painful. I have just been so tormented, first because he was supposed to be ok, and secondly, because I’m so worried that he was sad or in pain. Thank you so much for what you do, Amanda
Hi Elizabeth, in sharing your story of your brother’s dying moments you mentioned that your mom is doubting if your brother was “really ready”. We are never "really ready” no matter what we say before we are on death’s door. Intellectually we can say we are ready to die but that is generally when we don’t really believe it is going to happen. Actually when we are at death’s door we don’t care anymore. We are busy getting out and releasing from our shell of a body. The last “scream” you mentioned is not uncommon. I don’t think there is thought behind the sound. We, the watchers, want to put meaning in those last actions and sounds but the person is so removed from their body and mind those sounds and actions are just part of the chick cracking its shell to be free.
I hope you can share this with your mom so she can let go of her worries. Both of you might write your brother a letter. Put all your thoughts, concerns, tears, and love on paper. Then burn the letter and scatter the ashes to the wind. Know he will receive your love. Blessings to you and your family. Barbara
My brother was a heavy drinker and diagnosed with jaundice and hepatitis of the liver. He quit drinking and day 14 his white blood cell count was up so he was admitted to the hospital. Found out his kidneys were failing as well. They drained fluids and were talking dialysis and over night there was a turn for the worse and the said the med weren’t working and that dialysis may prolong his life a little bit the quality wouldn’t be good. We rushed up to say good byes he was 3 hours away and when we get there he is in and out. He hears the can say they are moving him and when the dr came in he told her I don’t want you guys to move me anywhere. Dr says we aren’t. Still in and out of it he was agitated kept messing with wires and pulling at oxygen monitor on his finger the dr says we can take that off and he said is it going to take time away from me and my family and she says no. They move him to a different floor and start the morphine drip and recommend hospice in the hospital. My brother had told my brother on the phone (when we were called to get up there soon if we wanted a decent conversation with him) that he was ok with it that he knew he was dying he thought he had 2 days (more like 12 hours) so she did what she thought he wanted and signed the papers. They come in and explain that the morphine is for pain and they would slowly turn the oxygen off. He was responding by grunting til he went to sleep. When oxygen was all the way off the preacher went in said a prayer. And not long after he passed when walking the preacher out I stopped in waiting room for just a bit and soon after my little brother got me and told me he was gone. The next day my mom said he screamed his last 3 breaths after no responses and I know it is haunting her. He was hanging on for his family and now I know my mom is second guessing if he was really ready to go
Hi Anna, Most people sleep with their eyes partially open beginning in the weeks before death. It is one of the signs I watch for that tells me death is nearing. In the weeks to actual death everything is generally like a dream. A person can hear but it is as if from afar. The tear is probably from having her eyes partially open. Our body sends tears to keep the eyes from drying out. From what you have described your mum died a peaceful, good death. Nothing bad or pathological happened. She was like the little chick working to get out of her shell of a body. That work looks strange to us but from what you described she did a good job. You might want to write her a letter and put your feelings and thoughts on paper. Tell her what is in your heart, say your goodbye, write about the good times and the challenging times. Put all the thoughts and tears on paper then burn the letter and scatter the ashes to the wind. She will know your letter. My blessings are with you. Barbara
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