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 The person at the moment of death is so withdrawn from their body that they are not expressing emotions or even feeling emotions.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 They have already withdrawn from what goes on around them days or even weeks before this moment.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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37 comments

Barbara

Hi Leigh, from your description of your mother’s last days, yes, she was working to get out of her body. It sounds like she did everything right. She was restless, she was murmuring she wasn’t eating or drinking much, she wasn’t connected to this world. She was the little chick working very hard to get out of her shell. All was as it was supposed to be. She did a good job How fortunate she was to be in your home and have family taking care of her. My blessings are with you. Barbara

Barbara

Hi Margaret, In response to your question about if your father was a “unconscious” in the days before he died. “Unconscious” is the questionable word here. What does that really mean? Does it mean he was aware of his surroundings? I believe he could hear but it is as if from afar but being fully aware of his surrounding I do not think so. His world was much like a dream and he would respond to the dream he was having , not what was happening around him. About the grimace: I don’t know if medically he had a history of pain and was receiving pain medicine. If that was the case then yes the grimace could have indicated pain but more than likely it just indicated discomfort at having his position changed and being disturbed. Blessings! Barbara

Leigh Kilsdonk

My nom passed away of end-stage bladder cancer in late October.And a couple weeks before she died her home health aide from Heartland Home Hospice was at our house to give her a bed bath and she and I also changed her bedsheets, and afterward my mom cried out ‘let me out’ in a whining quality as she lay there covered in a quilt. And on her last day she didn’t eat anything, only drank sips of root beer soda and ice water from straws. That evening she rolled out of bed and my sister-in-law came over to help me get her back in bed. She also helped me change her diaper. Shortly afterward a nurse came to check her out. My mom was very restless from that afternoon on until the nurse gave her morphine(2 doses were needed) to calm her down. I between doses she cried out "help me! She passed away in the early hours of the following day. Do these incidences mean that she was trying to let go?

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

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