A Curious, Amazing Thing That Often Happens Just Before Death

Image by Vlado

Both the hubster and I were there with the family, at the house, when our good friend, Mr. B, died a couple weeks ago, and I wanted to tell you about something amazing that happened right before he passed.  Actually, this type of dying event is common and it frequently (certainly in every case that I’ve been involved with) lifts the spirits of those who are there to witness it.

It was nearing the end and Mr. B had been unconscious for close to a day and a half.  The hubster, driven by the common, but often unspoken, instinct displayed by loved ones to never leave their dying person alone, was taking his turn sitting beside the bed and holding Mr. B.’s hand.  The family was scattered throughout the house, cleaning up from breakfast, while Mrs. B was on the other side of the room discussing something with their son.  She’d just finished and was walking past the bed on her way out to the kitchen when Mr. B. suddenly, the hubster later told me excitedly, squeezed his hand.


“Like this!” he said, grabbing my hand and crushing it in a way that sent shooting pains up my arm.

“Ow!”  I snatched my hand away and glared at him.  “That hurts!”

“I know!” the hubster started nodding vigorously, relieved that I got it. “That’s just what it was like!  He did that to me, too!”

And suddenly I did get it, and I was amazed.  My mind flew back to the last hour when Mr. B. lay there helpless and still; pale, shrunken, and almost gone.  He’d grown so weak he fell into a final coma from which he couldn’t seem to climb back out, but then somehow…in that last minute…he powered back up anyway.  He’d grabbed onto the only thing available, the husbster’s hand, and squeezed it so hard that the hubster had to sit up and pay attention.

“He opened his eyes and locked onto mine…and I just panicked,” the hubster admitted.  “I didn’t know what was going on but I sure didn’t feel like I was the last thing he needed to see.  So I called Mrs. B. and she was right behind me.  She sat down and took his hand, spoke to him gently telling him she was there, and then a few seconds later Mr. B died while gazing into her eyes.”

The husbster paused, reflecting for a moment, then looked at me and said, “I feel like that’s what he really wanted, y’know?  That’s why he squeezed my hand.  He knew it was time to go and he wanted me to get Mrs. B. for him.”

Later, Mrs. B told me the same thing.

“It happened just as I was walking past the bed,” she mused.  “I think he knew it.  I think that’s why he made his move right at that moment.  He wanted to tell me good-bye.”

It’s well known within hospice circles that the dying are far more aware of and, in a lot of cases, far more involved in the timing of their actual departure, than most people realize.  Hearing seems to be the last sense to go and the dying often still respond to auditory stimuli…familiar voices, favorite music, sensitive information (which is why it’s so important to exercise caution when speaking within their hearing btw), etc….even from the depths of coma.

I love this…the fact that our relationships with one another don’t just stop because one of us loses consciousness.  The connections we build are so much more complex, beautiful, delicate, and tenacious than that.  It often feels…there in the rooms of the dying…like some vast and luminous web has been spun around us, supporting and binding us at a thousand, twinkling, alternate, junction points so that, even if we can no longer speak or see or touch, our love still travels easily along the other pathways, the ones that haven’t collapsed.

My mother awakened in her last moments, too (even though that was scientifically impossible with all the heavy sedation she was under,) her eyes opening for one last, brief glimpse as my brother read a passage aloud from the Upanishads.  My grandmother was decidedly more active about her’s.  After three days of coma (and six solid hours of heavy labor where she seemed to be stuck in her body and unable to leave) she finally sucked in one last, mighty breath, opened her eyes, and let out a yell on the exhale, as though she’d stripped off her helmet, mounted the sound, and was riding it wildly out of her own mouth in a last, triumphant charge.   I remember how I sat there stunned for a moment…and then burst out laughing.  With relief.  With applause.  With joy.

But my favorite story, the one that always cracks everyone up, involves the last moments of The Feisty One, an elderly German woman whose final words probably best sum up the sheer shock-and-awe effect of the transition from life into death.  She was what we call a colorful character; a regal prima donna who commanded everyone, was disdainful of doctors, dismissed all the symptoms of her decline with contempt, and who kept telling me that really, it was all just a bad case of constipation and she’d be up and around again soon. 

And then, she insisted, I’m going to cook you a real German meal.

I adored this woman.

Her daughter-in-law was the one who told me the story of The Feisty One’s last moments.  How she’d had a burst of energy and talked for something like fifteen hours straight, all through the night and well into the following morning, before falling into a coma.  How she then just lay there, finally quiet, for a day and a half, her breathing growing increasingly labored and shallow.  And then how, right at the end, she drew one last breath and opened her eyes again, staring at them all in complete surprise, before exclaiming, “Shit…SHIT!…SHIT!!!”  After which she collapsed back against the pillows again and promptly died.

I can only imagine how those may very well be my own sentiments exactly some day.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

3 responses

  1. Encouraging story. It is tough to know exactly when someone will die (if they are in hospice or dying in a hospital), especially trying to figure out when to fly down if you live in another state. The day my mom went to hospice I made a reservation fly to Denver early the next morning. When I landed my sister told me mom had died 1/2 hour earlier. I had seen her 3 weeks before that and we had a good talk. I also talked with her on the phone the night before she died and said, “I”m coming tomorrow, wait for me, Mom.” She said, ” I’m trying.” This year, my dad went into the hospital, and I got the call that night, to hurry down. I made the reservation for early Saturday morning. He died during the night. I had also been with him 3 weeks earlier, and talked to him on the phone the night before he died. Interestingly, Mom died the day after she went into hospice, and Dad died the day before they were going to move him into hospice. My 24-year old son died in a triathlon while I was at rehearsal. I wish I could have been at his side at the moment his spirit left his body. But he is still with me, as are Mom and Dad.

    • I’m sorry norell208. That’s so much loss. I didn’t realize you were dealing with the death of your parents AND your son cumulatively. I’m glad you had the chance to be with and talk to both your parents shortly before they died though, and I hope it helped in dealing with missing them both by such a narrow margin at the end. That would be tough, especially when it happened twice.

      I’ve found that medical personnel often don’t give notice that time is short until it’s too late. I understand why…time of death is very unpredictable until a person is actively dying, but then things move all too quickly. I would probably err on the side of calling out the family early. Even if they couldn’t stay until the moment of passing, at least they would be able to exchange last words, or hold hands, or whisper good byes. Over the years with hospice I came to feel like dying isn’t a momentary event so much as a gradual transition, something that can start weeks beforehand and culminate a little while after their heart stops. I realized I felt the same sense of closure, of completion, saying my good-byes anytime within that window. It’s like the timetables of the body and the life inside it are different. As if they run parallel, but at slightly different speeds.

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