Warning: This article deals with some of the most intimate and horrifying details of death. This article may be triggering or emotionally difficult to read due to these topics. I have chosen to share this because I truly believe being aware of the bodies process of death makes witnessing the actual event just a little less traumatizing or shocking. I’ve chosen to share this because i found that discovering these signs and processes without prior warning is truly disturbing. Read at your own discretion.
Sometimes all it takes is to pass an ambulance with its lights flashing and the siren screaming. Other times it’s a song or a hawk soaring through the sky. I find the vice grip closing around my heart and my eyes hot and watering. Television portrays final moments as painful and dramatic ending with an unspoken peace - often showing death from a terminal illness from afar through the eyes of someone who’s never truly experienced it. I thought, for a long time, these tranquil passings where an accurate representation until I watched my father slowly die before my own eyes.
No one warns you the insidious details will follow you and haunt you for months. They don’t warn you of the blackening of the whites of the eyes, the pale glaze that covers the pupils of those you love, or the horror of watching their bodies deteriorate before their last breath has even been taken. The truth is, death is an ugly experience. It’s just the tiniest bit easier to deal with if you are educated and aware of what you are witnessing without the burden of any unexpected surprises.
The last few days prior to death hospice patients will often exhibit the following signs: It becomes difficult to breathe and or swallow, blood pressure decreases, and skin color may change. Their extremities begin to grow cold due to a decrease in circulation, they may be restless or a have a burst of energy before they begin to sleep constantly or lose consciousness, or their skin may become blotchy. Finally, perhaps one of the most disturbing signs is referred to as the “death rattle”. This is the sound that is made by the congestion in the person's lungs as they choke out their final breaths.
Nobody warned me of these signs.. or about how the whites of the eyes grow dark... the final glaze that covers the pupils... all of which suddenly becomes so much more graphic and horrifying for a loved one. Hospice staff or other hospital staff may explain this to you gently as it occurs, but the moment is horrifying to process.
Death is not always a quiet or gentle thing even as it occurs naturally. It can be as equally ugly and horrifying as life can be brilliant, joyous, and beautiful.