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 The person at the moment of death is so withdrawn from their body that they are not expressing emotions or even feeling emotions.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 They have already withdrawn from what goes on around them days or even weeks before this moment.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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34 comments

Margaret B

Several days before my stepdad passed his eyes were half open. Would he have been unconscious? When we moved him to change his diaper he seemed to grimace so I was wondering if he was conscious.
Thank you!!

Barbara

Hi Melissa, thank you for reaching out to me about your mother’s last moment. About the tear, it was probably not one of sadness and certainly not unusual. I have seen moisture from the eyes many, many times. When a person has their eyes partially open, (which most people when they are in the last days do) the body sends moisture, tears, to keep the eyes from drying out. An important thing I want you to think about is: we have limited control over the time that we die. You said someone from the family usually arrived around 8 AM and that your mother died shortly before 7AM. I believe she choose to die when you were not there as a way of protecting you. It was her gift to you. Yes, we have that much control. Now about feeling guilty that she was in a nursing home. With her wandering during the night, unless you had nighttime shift help who would simply watch her, you had no other options for keeping her safe. This situation is one that many families are faced with. About your mother sitting up in bed and making a loud sound while she was non responsive: people as they are dying do a lot of strange things that we will never have answers to or reasons for. What I do know is during the dying days and hours the person’s thoughts and activities are not of this world. They can hear us but it as if from afar. We tend to think of peoples minds as being aware just trapped inside a body. Not so. Their work is getting out of their body. Their minds are not tuned to the present. Think of how our dreams are, symbolic, no time frames, disjointed. That is the mind of a dying person so what comes out in the physical relates to what is going on inside of them, not outside. I hope my thoughts have given you something to think about and brought you some comfort. You might write your mom a letter and put your thoughts and concerns on paper. Tell her everything in your heart that you would say if you could. Then burn the letter and scatter the ashes. My blessings are with you. Barbara

Melissa

I lost my Mom in March 2018 and I have regrets we were not at her side when she passed. My Mom suffered from Cx for 5 years. After it moved to her brain, she slowly deteriorated over then next 18 months until she passed. It started out with her forgetting a recipe she had made for years, to falling several times a week. The last fall almost killed her and she never came home – she went to rehab and then a nursing home. My father, 82 at the time, could not take care of her and protect her. She often would get up in the middle of the night and wonder around the house. My dad would tell her to wake him up if she needed something , but she would forget. He would tell her to then turn the light on, but she would forget that, too. Many times my dad would wake up and find her on the floor in another part of the house. Once she fell and hit her head on the foot of the bed and got a nasty cut on her forehead, and another time in the garage. I don’t know why I am justifying our decision to move her to a nursing home, actually I do… I have a lot of guilt over it. She would not have wanted that, but we did not have another choice. There was nothing we could do to prevent her from doing any of this. This brings me to the tear. My Mom was in Hospice and we were well educated on the signs to watch for in the end. First she stopped eating and drinking, then she slept all day with her eyes half open. A few days before she passed the Hospice nurse was there with us and she was sharing how she was going through the process of leaving her body and how difficult it is for the body to go through that process. She shone a small light in my Mom’s eyes and said her pupils were no longer responsive. Right after she left I was on her bed holding her hands and she sat up a little, eyes wide open staring right at me and she tried to talk but all that came out was the sound a deaf person makes when they try and speak. I always think about that – what was she trying to say? was she scared? My dad was at her side every day, and I came by after work and would sit with her and hold her hand and tell her she could go and not to worry because I would take care of Dad. The day before she passed, we left her room around 7P and told her we would be back in the morning. I got a call around 645A the next morning from the nurse who said, “your mother has expired.” Yes, she used those words. When my dad and I got there, her body was still warm. I hugged her and she was so rigid. I could not believe how warm she was – I guess I expected her to feel cool to the touch. I had to leave the room. We sat out in the living area outside her room and the nurse came over and said, “It was the oddest thing. When I checked on your mom this morning and realized she had expired, there was this one lone tear on her check.” Like everyone else, I have thought about the tear daily. Was it joy for meeting her savior? Was she seeing her parents and others who passed before her? Was she sad? Did she know she was alone? I have so much guilt for not being there. None of us were there at that early hour. One of us would usually get there around 8A. No one could explain the tear, no one had ever heard of it. My best friend who is an MD had never heard of it. Thank you for sharing this information and thank you to all of you who have shared your experience. I don’t think my guilt will ever subside, but this gives me something else to think about it.

Kevin B

I am so sorry for the loss of your mother.
I will say that in my experience that tears are are very often a sign of tear ducts closing in the death and dying process. At that stage it is generally the tear duct muscle relaxing.

Barbara

Hi Millyboo, as a person is preparing to leave this world they start to withdraw their attention from daily activities to parts of themselves that are inside. They often close their eyes or have their eyes partially closed. This is normal and part of how we die. Know your resident can hear you so continue to talk and tell her what you are doing as you care for her, when you are leaving, and when you will return. My blessings are with you and the woman you are caring for. Barbara

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