There’s a type of breathing when people die called agonal respiration. The best way to describe this is a deep, regular breathing that often involves movement of the jaw and shoulders. The jaw movement is what I almost always notice. If you think of it, normally when we breathe your jaw doesn’t move at all. This forward thrust of the jaw is an ominous sign, and usually means death is minutes to hours away. Another name for this type of breathing is guppy breathing, named I suppose for the movement fish make when trying to get air out of water. We have pamphlets in all the rooms explaining these things for families,so they can also recognize the signs of the dying process.
All this is background for a funny story. We had a lady here at the house that was very curious about the dying process. She decided to read the pamphlet too, so she could be prepared for these changes in her body. That’s understandable, but she went even a step further. The nurse went in her room one morning and found the patient sitting in bed holding a mirror up to her face. She had put on her brightest lipstick, a deep red that was in shocking contrast to her pale skin. There she sat with her cheeks sucked in, making a fish pucker face,moving her lips up and down. “Mrs.Rose, what are doing there making that face?” the nurse asked in bewilderment. “OH, I’m just practicing” she said matter-of-factly. “Practicing what?” the nurse wondered. “Well, this book here talked about guppy breathing as you die, so I thought I should practice it to see how it looked…I want to do it well.”
The nurse could hardly contain her laughter at this misguided attempt. If she only knew how different the fish pucker face was from actual agonal breathing…and how strange it would be if that’s the face we all made when we died!