Writing About the Final Moments of Life

Hello SE friends, Gwen with you today to tackle a sensitive and complicated topic.

With our world turned upside down because of COVID, most of us are unsettled. We think about “things” we’d rather not entertain. Tomorrow used to be a day we planned for, but now it’s a question mark on a calendar. What will happen when the sun rises, am I safe – anywhere?

These thoughts and more prompted me to consider a series of questions over the next three posts. How do we as writers address the final moments of life, or the question of life after death, and who or what is God?

Most of us tiptoe around these mysteries because they are emotionally charged. They deal with personal beliefs, with religion. When we write, we often shelve our thoughts and scribe for the unknown reader. Some of us try to create an undefined middle ground.

Over the next few posts, I hope to add dimension to that middle ground. As a start, I’ll focus on the final moments of life.

Photo courtesy of Canva

Many of us include death scenes in our books. Sometimes our characters die suddenly through an accident or a murder, other times the dying process may be prolonged through natural causes or a disease. Irrespective of how our characters die, writing about death can be challenging.

If we haven’t sat bedside with someone who is leaving this life or we’re not a first responder, we may not know what our character experiences when he or she passes.

Most likely, we are all familiar with the crushing emotions that can accompany this hallowed time. We’ve lost loved ones – a friend, a neighbor, a family member. We’ve sunk into despair; we’ve cried ourselves to sleep. But in our anguish and our preoccupation, we may not have been aware of the stages of dying. With this post, I will review some of those final steps.

As a person begins to let go of life, there are three common reported phenomena.

  • They often lose consciousness. Even though unresponsive, it’s likely they remain aware of others in the room. Very often they can hear conversations and may have tactile sensations. Though they may be unable to acknowledge us, our words to a dying loved one or the simple touch of our hand can bring great comfort. These one-way conversations and embraces can help the dying truly rest in peace.

Research affirms the above, but I also have a story to share. Years ago, when I was an administrator at a university, a student nearly drank himself to death. He broke the highest recorded blood alcohol level within the State of Connecticut. I sat bedside to this unconscious young man for hours. Though I didn’t know if he could hear me, I told him that he could not die. His family would arrive soon, and they loved him. Over and over, I said that he needed to live because he was meant to do wonderful things. When he finally emerged from this state, the medical team was shocked. They expected death. Wanting to introduce myself, I said to the eighteen year old, “You don’t know me Joe, but …” He interrupted me with the following. “I know who you are. I recognize your voice. You kept telling me I needed to live.” He had heard everything I said while unable to respond with even the slightest movement.

  • Another common phenomenon of the death process is skin color changes. As blood circulation slows, the hands and feet grow colder and can look bluish. If the dying person is alert, he or she may ask for blankets. Even if they cannot speak, those nearby may turn up the thermostat and cover their loved one to keep them warm.

When my mother’s time grew near, she was beautiful until her last breath, but her extremities grew cold and her skin appeared almost transparent. We knew she was leaving and tried to keep her as comfortable as possible – sometimes with lingering embraces. And as we sat close, we shared stories and talked about her celestial family.

  • A third development involves breathing changes. The breath may become noisy because the person cannot cough or clear the airways. This “death rattle” slows and becomes more irregular as the end approaches. For most loved ones, this is a mournful time.

When my dad’s time neared, my sister and her husband (both nurses) began tracking the time between each inhalation to determine the actual moment of passing. I sat beside and shared family stories until the end. After I told him that there was no need to worry about mom, that we would take care of her, he took a deep breath and let go of life. Though a profoundly sad experience, to say our final goodbye to someone we love is a gift for both the receiver and the giver.

I hope this post offered a little clarity and perhaps some dimension to a process we all face. I’d love to hear if any of it rang true to you and if you’ve tried to incorporate these elements in your scenes.

With my next post, we’ll consider the question of life after death. I’ll examine current research for clues as to how we might add this theme to our writing – should we have interest in doing so.

I hope you have a wonderful week!

80 thoughts on “Writing About the Final Moments of Life

  1. An important post Gwen and I’m glad you shared the link to this one I missed with your new post. As one who only months ago lost the love of my life and lay by his side as I knew the end was coming, I’d say your words are factual. The hardest thing I’ve done in my life was watch my husband die. It’s almost impossible for one to know what it feels like unless they’ve lived it. xx

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  2. Pingback: Writing About the Final Moments of Life – Desa Maju Mulyo

  3. Thanatology might interest you it is the srudy of beliefs and rituals surrounding death. I didnt know that existed until I saw an ad for a college program. It

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Margaret. Long years ago, I took a couple of theology classes from a priest who studied thanatology. His perspectives were always fascinating. Thank you for the reminders. Warm regards.

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  4. Thank you for sharing these moments from your life with us, Gwen. Too often topics such as death are considered uncomfortable to talk about, but you have shown through your posts and the comments how comforting it can be to share moments such as these. You’ve also given writers something to think about when they go to write such a sensitive scene. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The death scene wouldn’t be easy to write, Gwen! Even if there was, probably wouldn’t describe so much of the physical phenomena. I was with three people in their last six months of hospice, two close relatives and one next door neighbor. I was also at the death bed of another two relatives. When one relative was in hospice, we received a handbook detailing the physical conditions of the last six months all the way to day to day of the last weeks. We read the handbook and watched the signs to prepare ourselves to say goodbye to her. It was helpful to recognize those signs. 🙂

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    • Not easy for sure. Thank you, Miriam, for sharing your experience. How beautiful that the hospice team helped prepare you for the final goodbye. I didn’t have that experience, but I would have loved to know the signs. 💗

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve only been with one person (my mother) at the time of their passing. One feeling that will stay with me occurred hours before when I talked to her in her unconscious state, and she squeezed my hand. I tend to look at things logically scientifically, and I considered it could have been some kind of involuntary movement, but I don’t think so. Mom was a deeply religious person. When she was at Hospice, a small group of singers occasionally came by and offered to sing if the family wanted that. I knew Mom would want that. On their second visit (the first had been maybe three days prior), I was with Mom, and they were singing to her as she passed. I had long accepted it was Mom’s time to go, and I felt comfort in them being there. The physical change I watched was her breaths became shallow and less frequent. It reminded me of a windup toy that had run out of steam. The word that best describes those last moments was serenity.

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  7. Hi,
    It is good to see addressing the topic of death. I too have accompanied very dear people on their crossover. I have to admit for me death has become a part of life and that was before COVID. It is a fact that these bodies that we have are not built for eternal life. I also bring into my books that death can happen anytime. No one knows when it will be their time. For many, like those who carry out dangerous jobs, death becomes a companion.
    It is really a topic that we cannot ignore and I am glad that you have decided to talk about your own experiences and also includes some facts about the process of dying.
    Shalom aleichem

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Pat, for sharing so deeply. As you mentioned, we do not know when our time will come. I suspect that the men and women in the military and our police live, as you stated, with death as a companion. We’ve much to be grateful for. 💗

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Everything you wrote is very accurate, Gwen. I’m glad you could encourage that boy to fight to live. I do believe we are heard even if they appear unresponsive, and I knew about the death rattle and cold. Although I haven’t used any of that in a story it is important to understand if writing a death scene. Informative post that brings up a lot of emotions. Thanks for dealing with such a delicate subject so well. I look forward to the next post. I tend to focus more on that part or what comes next.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Denise. Like you, I tend to focus on the afterlife, but writing this has helped me see the graced time of the dying process. Someday, I suspect I’ll be including such a scene in a book. 💗

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Your post on the final moments struck my heart. No one should underestimate how the will to live can sometimes get a person through. When my husband was twenty-four years old, he went into a coma with undiagnosed Type 1 Diabetes. He had the typical near-death experience of seeing a white light but refused to go to the next realm because he didn’t want his son growing up without a father. He remembered hearing comments from hospital assistants saying, “This guy is ready to be put into a Hearst.” His glucose levels were through the roof before he was given insulin–levels that the hospital personnel had never seen before. It is a miracle that he survived. The final moment when a person finally lets go of life is sad but heartfelt. These are the most profound moments in everyone’s life,

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for sharing this miracle, Linnea. Perhaps because of what he dimly heard, he fought to live, and ultimately, offered much to this world of ours. How incredible. 💗

      Liked by 2 people

  10. A lovely and solemn post, Gwen. I used to work in hospice and can attest to your experiences. It’s a profound honor to sit beside someone who’s dying and usher them from life with a much peace and comfort as possible. It’s heartbreaking, but that time and attention is precious. ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Beautiful post, Gwen, and an important topic. Our family has been widely scattered since we each became independent of our parents. We grew up as military Brats and have always traveled. During my mom’s last day, my sisters and I were with her and my brother was flying in from overseas. At one point, after Mom had become unresponsive, she suddenly pointed to a spot near the ceiling and, although she was flat on her back, tried to run toward it. My sister said, “Mom, you can’t take this body with you. When it’s time, God will release you to come Home.” She immediately relaxed. A couple hours later, my brother came in after traveling a full 24 hours. He spent time talking to her, holding her hand, and asked her to tell everyone on the other side how much we love them all. Then he released her by assuring her we would all be fine. My brother, one sister, and I left to get him something to eat, and when my sister who elected to stay returned to Mom’s bedside, she was gone. She had waited for Mark, and then left when the room was empty for a moment. I wasn’t there when my dad died in Spain, but some of the other siblings were. Death is not something we fear. I look forward to your next article. Thank you for this one!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for sharing your mom’s beautiful passing, Patty. Much like your siblings, after my parents left us, my brothers and sisters scattered a bit. We’re talking of getting together, but no real plans yet. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  12. You described death, as I’ve experienced it, very well. I was with my father and my husband when they passed. I was not with my son because the team working on him would not let us near (with good reason). I consider it a privilege to be present as one leaves this state into who knows what.
    Excellent post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Dale, for sharing your experience and offering insight. What a gift to be with your father and husband at their passing. I’m so deeply sorry about your son’s death, but it sounds as though it was best that you were not next to him. Blessings to you and all. 💗

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Gwen. It was a gift.
        Honestly, when it comes to Austin, they gave him to us to hold right after. It’s amazing how heavy 12 pounds can be. (He was tiny at almost 8 months.)

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  13. Such a deep and thoughtful post, Gwen. I’ve sat by the bedside of too many loved ones as they took their final breath, and I use those experiences in my writing. It’s easier to share when “in character” but I will say, your experiences ring true for me. The pasty white appearance and death rattle are unmistakable clues that the end is near. Some even envision passed loved ones coming to take them home. My mom saw my dad and said she wanted to go with him. As a teenager, it wasn’t easy to give my blessing. She was so torn between the two of us. But I knew it was the right thing to do…for her.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh Sue, what a beautiful account of your mom’s experience. I’ve heard similar stories of loved ones coming for the dying, but I’ve not witnessed a loved one having that experience. How blessed! Thank you for sharing so deeply. 💗

      Liked by 1 person

  14. This post touched me deeply, Gwen. When I wrote ‘Til Death Do Us Part, the hardest scenes for me, were the ones when Rick was leaving us. I would have to stop typing and gain control of my emotions time and again before I could go on. But what I wanted to convey the most, was the incredible beauty and grace I experienced in his death process. It is difficult to let go of these bodies we are so comfortable in and face an unknown, but the moment it happens is much like childbirth. You have tackled a sensitive topic and as always, in true Gwen Plano fashion, did it with love and compassion.

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    • Thank you so much, Jan, for sharing your beautiful journey with Rick. ‘Till Death Do Us Part has helped many, I am certain. What I’ve found is that talking/writing about death has opened doors in my heart and now I’m ready to write a bedside scene. Thank you again. 💗

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Thanks for adding information, insight and your experience to this important phase of life.Gwen. I’ve visited people who were dying, but not as they passed. I felt a wave of sadness as I read this. Also, a bit of comfort.

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    • Thank you, Dan. I totally relate to the wave of sadness. This year has brought departed loved ones close to me, prompting solace and this reflection. Through it all, there’s added peace.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Michele. Most of us, including me, find death scenes complicated at best. Since writing this post, though, I feel more prepared to include a vigil scene. Something tender, perhaps something revealing. Thank you again.

      Liked by 3 people

  16. I’ve written the murder scene and the medical scene, but I don’t think I’ve ever written the vigil scene. These are all excellent points to consider. (And difficult to think about.) I love your anecdote about the boy you sat with. That’s amazing.

    Thanks, Gwen.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Staci. My experience with Joe has helped me with other bedside situations. Now I always talk to the unconscious as though they are listening. And, you are right, this awareness opens the door to powerful vigil scenes. 😊

      Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Craig. I’m pleased you found it helpful. It’s a tough topic, but most of us include death scenes in our books, so I decided to write about it here. Thank you again.

      Liked by 2 people

  17. Most of the times I’ve written about death was when a character was murdered. In my first book, a teenage girl learns of her father’s unexpected death. I relied on my personal experience with my own father’s death, but looking back now, I could have done so much more with that scene.

    I did experience the third thing you talked about when my father-in-law passed away. My sister and law and I were the only ones in the room. Indeed, the “death rattle” did slow. Susan noticed it and I began timing the intervals between breaths. When it was well over a minute, we knew he was gone.

    I’m looking forward to the next post of this series.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for sharing, Joan. Though I’ve had a number of personal experiences with the dying, I think COVID has made death real for me. Like you, I’ve written death scenes that I might embellish now if I were to rewrite the scene.

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  18. In my genre, where a happily ever after is a requirement, I’ve never written a death scene except for a car accident that killed a secondary character. My first experience with death happened when I was eleven-years-old. My best friend’s father died unexpectedly in the kitchen of a massive heart attack. I look forward to your next post, Gwen. This is certainly an emotional topic to cover. xo

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for commenting, Jill. You are so right, it is an emotional topic for all of us. And including death scenes in our books is, well, complicated at best. 💗

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Usually when I’m writing about someone dying in my books it’s a murder or accidental killing, but I have referenced moments like you refer to above with a character remembering the passing of a close family member or friend. And I just wrote a bedside vigil scene for a WIP. The story you told about the young man who drank to much is amazing, Gwen. I have held that bedside vigil only once in my life (with my mother) but all that you said rings true.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Because of my experience with Joe, I speak lovingly with the dying. Hearing is the last faculty to leave us. And through this lingering sense, a writer can open the door to possibility. Thank you, Mae. 😊

      Liked by 2 people

  20. We were looking after my mother-in-law in her last days. Her other daughter-in-law was also there as she was working nearby and staying during the week.
    The morning she died, my husband swears she waited until we’d all been in to see her, then slipped away.
    I’d gone to get her medication, I think my husband had gone to get dressed when her other daughter-in-law (having already been in to see her) went to say she was off to work, and she’d gone.
    Thank you for sharing this. I’ve written about death in several of my novels. I wish I’d read this beforehand. But it will be a great help in the future.

    Liked by 4 people

  21. My first experience was as a teenager at college. I used to chat with the elderly man who lived next door to our shared house. He said that he didn’t feel well and I went round just before he had a fatal heart attack. I found it traumatic because the ambulance I called for didn’t come until nearly an hour later, but his family were grateful that he wasn’t on his own and that the end was a sudden one. Later ones have involved terminally ill family members and the experiences have been different – very peaceful because important things could be said and because it was a need to reassure that was uppermost rather than a fear of death itself. Your story about Joe is a powerful reminder of the difference we can make even when things appear pointless. A thought-provoking topic, Gwen.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you for sharing your experience, Alex. I can imagine how frightening your first encounter must have been. With the terminally ill, we’re given time and it can soften the pain. Bless you. 💗

      Liked by 2 people

  22. My dad passed at home nineteen years ago, but I still remember the bedside vigil our family had and your post describes it almost perfectly. It was comforting to say our goodbyes before he lost consciousness, but the reality was no less heartbreaking. In contrast, my husband’s death two years ago was sudden and unexpected, and not having those final moments still remains a nagging source of pain.

    Consequently, I’ve stalled in my writing, unable to get through authentic death scenes.

    Thought-provoking post.

    Liked by 4 people

  23. This is a lovely post, Gwen, with some wonderfully practical points. I’ve lost lots of folks and seen lots of patients die (not at my hand, I hasten to add! 😉).

    I’ve also experienced the other side on two occasions. When I went into respiratory arrest and unconsciousness, I wasn’t aware at all. But another time, under different circumstances, I was aware of everything but couldn’t respond. That experience gives me much empathy for stroke sufferers and those with severe disability.

    I look forward to your next post on this topic. Thanks for sharing 💕🙂

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, Harmony. What powerful experiences you’ve had! You’ve reminded me of something. During my mom’s last hours, she appeared to be sleeping. My siblings and I had gathered around her bed and were talking. Then she whispered, “I can hear you.” The last hours or when a person is unresponsive as you’ve shared, it’s very possible they can hear. 💗

      Liked by 2 people

  24. This is intriguing and informative for us as writers, Gwen.

    Also, you are right that we have also lost someone. In my case, both parents were the closest, but on neither occasion was I present. I was still a teenager when my mother was taken to hospital, and my father returned only four hours later with the news she had passed. I was married and living a six-hour drive away when I lost my father.

    The most shocking was the death of a young mother of four from Covid19 only this year. It does indeed beg the question, what will happen tomorrow… will we see tomorrow?

    For myself, when I was desperately ill in hospital, it explains why I was so often cold, and why the burses piled on blankets until they ran out – literally. everyone of the ward was very sick.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you for sharing so personally, Sarah. While COVID has made death real for all of us, your experience is palpable. I too often forget that every moment is a gift. 💗

      Liked by 1 person

  25. Fortunately is a relative term, but fortunately we got my husband out of hospital after a major operation just before our lockdown started. It was so hard for people who couldn’t visit loved ones in hospital and my husband hated being in hospital anyway. He had terminal cancer which went off at a tangent as a brain tumour. He could have died in hospital, he didn’t and the operation made him much more comfortable, though disabled. So with me having no experience of caring we were isolating with our main aim to make sure he did not get Covid and could stay at home for palliative care. He loved isolating because he just did not want to go out and certainly not in a wheelchair and was not at all interested in having friends visit, or even much interested in his family.! Perhaps that was partly due to the effects of the brain tumour. He got quite a bit better in himself and lived for another nearly seven months enjoying the sunny days, sleeping a lot, listening to the radio over breakfast in the sun lounge, watching our favourite programmes in the evening. Then things went downhill quite quickly and family stopped keeping away to keep him safe and came to help. Our house turned out to be ideal with our downstairs bathroom and the ‘man cave’ with its hard floor ideal for the hospital bed. Just for the last ten days we were so grateful for the Marie Curie nurses. Being there at the end often does not happen as I know from family stories and wider folk law, the dying person contriving to slip away just when you leave the room. None of my family were there the last evening, only the night nurse. She alerted me to his breathing changing; it was a very short time and it was as if he ‘switched off’ and I thought ‘how clever, how did you do that?’ I look forward to the next post Gwen.

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