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 The person at the moment of death is so withdrawn from their body that they are not expressing emotions or even feeling emotions.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 They have already withdrawn from what goes on around them days or even weeks before this moment.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

Dear Cheryl, it certainly appears to me that your dad was saying goodbye in the only way his body would let him. He gave you a gift. Blessings to you and your family. Barbara

Susan Crow

My 67 year old Christian sister passed with me holding her hand, died of cancer. A few minutes before she passed, her face became a dark purple/blue/grey with deep winkles, lasted for a few seconds then repeated a few minutes later. She looked to be 100 years old during these few seconds. It looked to be demonic. Then her face went back to normal. It was hard for her to breath, she was on morphine. Have you seen this before or heard of this happening? Thank you, Susan
BK Books replied:
Hi Susan, no demons present. That final push to leave the body takes more effort for some than for others. Just think of a woman giving birth to a baby, pushing to get the baby out, the facial expressions will vary. So it is with labor to leave this world. Blessings! Barbara


My mother-in-law passed away almost 2 months ago. We had a special relationship. She was like a mother to me, for 30 years.

My wife and I cared for her at home until the end and I helped with things I never thought I’d be doing for her.

Each night, I told her I loved her, and she would always respond, “I know, I love you, too.”

On her last day, she was unresponsive, after being hyper-sensitive and speaking to people who passed away long ago the day before.

On that last day, her breathing was labored and shallow.

I noticed a tear coming from her eye — my wife wiped it off, and, then, another. My wife wiped that one away, and left the room.

As she was away, and a friend was at the foot of the bed looking on, I stroked my mother-in-law’s hair and told her that she would always be with us, in our memories and in our hearts. Speaking in her ear, I told her that I love her. I felt her head move and, when I looked at her, her eyes were open. She looked at me and mouthed, “I know.” I turned away to call my wife, saying, “Mom’s eyes are open!” but, when I looked back, I noticed that she had stopped breathing. My wife did get there and we think my mother-in-law saw her. She left us so peacefully.

I am still so pained by the last moment - I love her knowing I was there, knowing how I felt… but, her last look and her last words, which must have been a struggle, and her immediate passing after them give me so much heartache. I know it was a great gift, but it still hurts because there was so much more to say… there always is.
BK Books replied:
C. there always is more to say. From what you described you gave your mother-in-law a gift of love and attention. You might write her a letter and put all of your unsaid words on paper, everything you still need to say to her. Burn the letter and scatter the ashes to the wind. Let how well you live your life going forward be the gift you give her. Blessings to you and your family. Barbara


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


Hi 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

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