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 The person at the moment of death is so withdrawn from their body that they are not expressing emotions or even feeling emotions.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 They have already withdrawn from what goes on around them days or even weeks before this moment.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

Connie

Feb,3 a little after 2 my Dad went to Heaven being there and seeing him die has left a horrible Mark on me I can’t get it out of my mind he sound like he was drowning 5 hours before he was gone he was crying out help me he even said Connie help me he had found out in December he had colon cancer that has spread to his stomach it spreaded very fast I was with him everyday from the day he found out taking care of him giving him all kinds of stuff to fight cancer ,blue barries walnuts ect,,,, my Daddy was a Godly man who loves Jesus I know where he is ,but can’t seem to understand the cry for help ,I even feel we let hem die we should have done something to clear the mucus up he was drowning just looking for help please I am in need of some kid of answer, connie

Sandy

Tonight I watched my mom take her last breath before she did her eyes had tears. I started to cry because I didn’t want her to cry I walked away crying . Later I came back to her and begged her to go to heaven see and be with her mom , dad sister and son. I played a song for her and then she closed her mouth and a big tear came down she took a few short breaths and then I told her to let go go home then she stopped breathing. To me and I will believe she had seen her family and it was tears of joy to finally see them . That was so peaceful to watch and I thank you sweet Jesus for taking her home.

Barbara

Hi Tracey, in response to your questions about your brother-in-law’s health; I am wondering when he last saw his physician? A doctor needs to evaluate him for the source of his pain. Until anyone knows why he is in pain, two Tylenol isn’t going to do anything. I am sorry the visiting nurse has not addressed this but you can by taking him to a doctor and have him evaluated. It also sounds like there are some mental health issues (Vietnam, depression, anxiety are possibilities). Have him evaluated for that while you are at the doctors.
It doesn’t sound to me that Jerry is actively dying but that he has some physical and mental challenges that need to be addressed.
My blessings are with you, Jerry, and your extended family. Barbara

Tracey Taylor

Hi Barbara – I was referred to your page by a friend who lost her husband, and received so much help & insight from your book “gone from my sight.” I was looking through your posts to see if I could find help, but did not, so I am reaching out to see if you can help.

My husband & I, my two adult boys (28 & 26) live in an extended family house with my husband’s older brother, Jerry (70 this year). While living here, we’ve all lost brother Mike, Dad, and Mom – 2006, 2008 and 2015, in order; we all live(d) together. Since Mom’s death, Jerry has deteriorated – vision, health (diabetes), personal hygiene & outlook on life; he expresses he’s in ALOT of pain. He has a visiting nurse and meals on wheels. Even before all this death, Jerry, a Vietnam Vet, was recluse – he went off in preparation for Y2K. Although his vision is deteriorating, he refuses glases.

Now, he is sleepless at night, but sleeps MOST of the day; moaning/crying out in agony (nurse says take Tylenol for pain).
I don’t know what to do, Barbara.

Any advice you can offer is greatly appreciated.
Sincerely,
Tracey-the-sister-in-law

Pam Johnson

I have witnessed “the final tear” twice. The first time was with my 1st husband. While his daughter was at his bedside, he seemed to wait until his son arrived to pass away. His daughter told him that both she and his son were at his bedside and loved him and a single tear trickled down his cheek and he took his last breath.
Then recently, my Mother was unresponsive for 24 hours. Just before she died, she opened her eyes, seemed to look at me, my son and daughter as we were telling her how much she was loved. She then closed her eyes and a single tear appeared as she took her last several breaths. It was a comfort for us. I found this site as I was exploring if there was a physiological reason for this experience… I will continue to believe it is a sign from God. It is a reassurance that it was time for the suffering to end. Blessings to all who have experienced loss.

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