The bedside death vigil; some observations.
This is most likely the most sacred time in the life of a dying person, even more than when they were born. They are actively “birthing” out of their bodies into Heaven, the Light or whatever you wish to call it. This is a time to support the dying person in every way possible and to honor them with true presence. Love is the most important ingredient in the entire process. So treat this as a time of loving expression and tender care.
The loved one may wait until you are out of the room to die. Many times they do not want you to see their actual passing so they wait until you go get dinner, use the restroom or something that takes you out of the room. This is for your benefit as well as theirs. For some it is hard to let go of life when those they love are still with them in the room.
When the loved one is actively dying it may seem like they are in a kind of comatose state but they can still hear you and may respond with very subtle signs, for example a very slight change in pressure when holding hands. This is a time to say your last words and be sure they know they are loved.
If you haven’t already, be sure to say how much you love that person. It is a time to forgive them if they have hurt you in any way and to ask for their forgiveness if you have hurt them. It is a time to thank them for what they have given you and who they have been in your life. And finally it is time to say good bye.
Some loved ones hang on because they are worried about you. It is important to let them know they can go, that you will be okay and able to care for yourself without them, and that you are willing to let them go. They often need permission to leave us. I’ve told each of my dying loved ones to “go to the light”, over and over again or said “when you are ready, don’t hold back, just go and be free. I will see you someday on the other side.”
If the loved one is having trouble because you are unwilling to let them go, they may have some suffering so that you will know they need to be released. Sometimes we just can’t let go until we see their pain. If you can encourage them to go and will let go fully with your heart, it can sometimes help them to suffer less during the process. But some will still suffer for reasons of their own.
Shortly before the person dies, they may start making rattling sounds in their throat. This is called the death rattle. As the muscles relax, those in the throat do too and the vocal chords will actually rattle. It is a sign that death is near. Not everyone makes this sound. They may often gasp and stop breathing for a few seconds before beginning again, slower. Another thing that can happen is that they have periods of rapid panting or cyclic breathing. This can be frightening to see if you don’t know that it is normal.
One sign that death is near is that the extremedies will start to get cold. As the body shuts down, the circulation becomes more and more localized, supporting the brain, heart and lungs. It may also be hard to feel their pulse or hear their heartbeat.
The best thing you can do for someone who is dying is be present, reassure them, give them comfort and dignity. Gentle rubs, quiet soothing music, or even just holding hands will help. For my partner, I rubbed his feet, held his hand, stroked his hair, kissed him and sang him gentle songs, slowly and with pauses in between lines. The breaking up of the rhythm of a song helps the loved one let go since it mirrors their slowing and pausing of breath.
If you are alone with the dying person, try to get a trusted family member or friend to sit with you afterwards while you wait for the disposal of the remains. It is a particularly difficult time and having an understanding person with you helps a lot. In each case, for me, my feeling was disbelief. I kept waiting for my loved one to wake back up again. It took me several hours to come to terms with the fact they were dead even though I was right there with them the whole time. There is an element of shock that confuses the brain. It seems impossible for all the life and love that had been in their bodies, to not be there anymore. The body still feels like their body so it is confusing. If possible, be sure to give yourself enough time to be ready to let the body go, before you allow it to be taken away.