Whimpers and Tears in the Actively Dying

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 The person at the moment of death is so withdrawn from their body that they are not expressing emotions or even feeling emotions.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 They have already withdrawn from what goes on around them days or even weeks before this moment.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?

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32 comments

barbara

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

Elizabeth

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

Barbara

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

Sharon

I lost my Mom 2 days ago at the most wonderful age of 100. She has been in an assisted living facility for 4 years due to dementia. She however knew my voice when I walked in the door to visit and would smile. After COVID restrictions started, I hired on as a nurse at the facility so I could be with her. 2 weeks prior to her passing she started being unable to swallow. Hospice was started.
As a RN, I’ve witnessed hundreds of deaths. I have never witnessed a tear at death or maybe I just never noticed. When my Mom passed she was very dehydrated but was kept comfortable on every 2 hour morphine SL. I also put artificial tear gel in her eyes every 4 hours. As she took her last breath, a single tear fell from her right eye (tear of joy is the right side) This was Mom being welcomed by Jesus and my siblings that went ahead of her.

Anna Dowling

My mum passed away 2 days ago .she had secondary breast cancer that had spread to her lungs ,spine and lympnode. I watched her slowly slipping away from us for 6 months . She never talked to us about passing away so I’m just thinking was she scared what was she thinking she never said good bye .in the last 10 hours her breathing was a struggle her eyes were open and was blinking but not looking at anything or us but wen we wiped her mouth she would kind of move her head lips I just want to know was she awake or was she sleeping with her eyes half open .wen i told her i loved her and said are u ready to go to dad now a tear was coming out her eye . I’m just hurting so much and keep thinking about the final day mum left us

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