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 The person at the moment of death is so withdrawn from their body that they are not expressing emotions or even feeling emotions.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 They have already withdrawn from what goes on around them days or even weeks before this moment.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

Ana

I simply disagree with her last tear. My mom past away recently. She has been in a lot of pain but never shed a tear. Prior her last day she ate and was drinking water. She did not urinate for her last two days. She did not speak. Didn’t make any noise. Her breathing was very rapid and slowed down at her last two hours. Her eyes were half way open. She shed many tears in her last breaths. While I sat by her side she blinked three times the moment she passed. I do believe they can hear us and there is no way they can communicate. My mom always wanted us by her side and we all made it clear we were there and we were going to be together with her. And the tears started to roll down her eyes.

Mellyboo

Barbara! I just read your book Gone From My Sight tonight at the home I work in! I loved it!
A resident of mine is in the stages of the end, she’s stopped eating, drinking. Now she has her eyes closed, when I go talk to her, she starts moving around, whimpers but keeps her eyes closed. It seems as tho she wants to open them but can’t. I wish I knew why this was.
Anyhow. Thank you for your book! 🙏🏽🙏🏽

Barbara

Dear Constance, it is so hard being at the bedside when our loved one is dying. We just don’t understand all that is happening. From what you have described of your mother’s last moments nothing pathological was happening. Actually it sounds like she did a very good job of dying easily. In the days and hours before death we are like the little chick working to get out of its shell. It works very hard to release itself from the confines of its shell. When we are dying we are working to get out of the confines of our body. Dying is not painful. Disease causes pain. From what you described your mother was not in pain. In fact the work to release from her body was not the struggle that many have. I don’t know why her eyes had tears. I do know that inside of her body, during that time, was not like she was acutely aware of thoughts and feelings. Her hearing and thoughts were as if hearing from a distant, as if being in that space between being awake and asleep—no feelings, no thoughts.
Constance, you might write your mother a letter. Put all of your concerns, thoughts, love and tears on paper. Write about the positive and about the challenges. Mom will understand. When you are finished burn the letter and scatter the ashes to the wind. You might also find my booklet My Friend, I Care helpful. My blessings are with you. Barbara

ConstAnce

My mom passed last week. I was at her bedside. She had been unresponsive for 5 days after a stroke. Eyes completely closed, yet when she took her last breath both of her eyelids were filled with tears. She made no sounds ever just stopped breathing and then the tears. It breaks my heart to think she was in pain or sad .. I don’t understand it, I’m tormented with the images. I wish they were tears of joy greeting her savior …. does everyone who dies typicall have tears even if their eyes have not been open at all and not watering because unable to blink?

Barbara

Hi Connie, from what you have described about your father’s death it sounds to me that nothing pathological was happening. He was dying the way most people die. It is so hard for us the watchers to understand how people die. We are used to how people die in the movies, most of us have never been at the beside in “real life” to know what is normal and what is not. The mucus was the result of fluid in his lungs. His body was shutting down and not able to process the fluid so it just stayed in his lungs. That is a normal part of dying. The crying and speaking out is also very normal. Our eyes are generally half open and fluid comes to the eyes. I don’t believe they are tears of sadness, just moistening of the eyes. About the speaking: in the hours to minutes before death a person is very removed from their physical body. Their world is like a dream world. They can hear as if from afar but they are very dream like. Their speech reflects what is happening in their “dream”. During the days and hours before death the person who is dying is like the little chick that works to get out of it’s shell. It appears to us they are just laying there, agitated, often murmuring when in fact they are working to get out of their body. I hope this has helped you see that your dad did a good job of dying. It is terribly sad that your father died but I don’t think anything that happened was pathological You might write your dad a letter. Put everything you want to say to him, the good and the challenging parts of your relationship in your letter. Let the tears flow, say what is in your heart then take the letter, burn it, and scatter the ashes to the wind. I hope this has offered you some guidance. My thoughts and blessings are with you. Barbara

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