How to Support a Loved One Who Is Dying

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When someone you care about is dying, even figuring out how to talk to them can feel overwhelming and frightening, which is completely understandable. “We don’t do a good job dealing with death and dying in our culture,” says Kerry Egan, a hospice chaplain and author of On Living. “So, I understand why people are afraid.” But, Egan advises, don’t let your fear “be a reason to not be with the people you love. Remind yourself, this is someone I love and they still are the person I love. The best thing you can do is to be present with them.” Here’s how to do that.

Remember they are the person they have always been

“Someone who is dying is still alive, they are still the person they always were,” says Egan. “Maybe they look different or smell different, but in their heart they are still the same person you love. They still need companionship.”

Meet them where they are

When Clare Schexnyder, founder and CEO of Oh Baby! Fitness in Decatur, Georgia, was supporting her mother through brain cancer, she says her family’s rule was “meet her where she’s at today.” For instance, she and her sister had been working hard to keep her mother sleeping in her own bed next to their father, because they were so afraid that transitioning her to a hospital bed was the last step toward death. But, says Schexnyder, “it became very evident that to be comfortable she needed to have that bed. And it wasn’t the very last step, it was meeting her where she was at.”

“Bring your full self and be with them as they are now and where they are now,” says Egan. “Listen carefully if they want to talk, sit quietly if they just want to be quiet.”

Connect through empathy

One of the most important ways you can support someone who is dying is to be empathic rather than sympathetic, says Marie Halevy, a hospice nurse in Atlanta. Empathy is “feeling with” people, connecting with and hearing their experiences. Sympathy disconnects you from the person by expressing pity or sorrow for their hardships. Halevy recommends a short video from Brené Brown on the difference between the two. Try to use empathic language to demonstrate that you are there with that person (“I hear you, and I’m so glad you shared that with me”) rather than attempting to make them feel better or putting a silver lining on the situation (saying “at least you…got to see your grandchildren/lived a long life/etc”)

Focus on them, not you

“One of the biggest struggles I see with family members and friends is that they start to project their guilt onto the dying person, and it becomes more about them than the patient,” says Halevy. “They have so much guilt about letting go that they make decisions to try and keep them here, like not wanting [the patient] to have pain medicine so that they won’t sleep too much. They are trying to hold onto the person, but in doing so they are interrupting the disconnection process the person is going through.”

This also applies to spiritual matters. “Sometimes loved ones feel a great need to make sure that the dying person is OK spiritually, because they love this person and want the best for them,” says Egan. “But don’t make it about your spiritual needs. Instead, try to have a conversation with the person before they are actively dying about what they need and want spiritually at the end.”

Be upfront

“There is often a lot of concern among family members that being honest causes the person who is sick to ‘give up,’” says Halevy. But if you don’t acknowledge the reality of what your loved one is going through, “patients go through a period of not being able to reconcile how awful they feel on the inside—and the need they feel to disconnect—from the desperate attempts to keep them here.”

“It’s ok to acknowledge the elephant sitting on the bed,” says Egan. “Most people who are dying don’t need you to smooth it all over and make it better. So many times, family and friends will say ‘Don’t talk about that’ when their loved one brings up death. But they are embarking on something they’ve never done before, and if they need or want to talk about it, let them do it. You don’t need to know what to say, you just need to listen.”

Celebrate moments of joy

“People are always saying to me, ‘Oh, you’re a hospital chaplain, that must be so depressing.’ But, it’s not,” says Egan. “A lot of my visits are very joyful. People tell me about the day they met their husband or their daughter was born. People who are dying like to reminisce, and you might really enjoy your visits. You might laugh and laugh.”

Roger Wong, a technical writer in Austin, Texas, supported his cousin through cancer by bringing joyful experiences to him. “Think Make-a-Wish Foundation type stuff but on a smaller scale,” says Wong. For instance, Wong found a copy of a movie that had just come out in the theaters on the Internet to show to his cousin, because “he didn’t have time to wait for the DVD.”

In the last months of her mother’s life, Schexnyder’s family brought her to the beach. “She spent most of her time on a couch with a big window looking out at the beach,” says Schexnyder. Once her mother could no longer leave the house, she and her siblings created an online sign-up for friends to come and sit with her. “It gave people time to say their goodbyes, and I got to meet all sorts of people I didn’t know,” Schexnyder remembers. “My community expanded exponentially. It was a beautiful thing and good for everybody who was a part of it.” They also had two “living memorial services” for her mom, including a piña colada party. “People told us that my mom had showed them how to live and our family showed them how to die. It was an extraordinary experience.”

Let them go

It is completely understandable to be afraid to let your loved one go. But Halevy warns that when caregivers let fear drive how they interact with someone who is dying, “they turn into cheerleaders, saying things like, ‘You have to eat this, you have to fight this, you have to get out of bed and walk.’ They think they are being supportive, but really all they are doing is putting pressure on that person at a time when they are trying to disconnect from their worldly ties. They are being pushed to stay rather than being encouraged to find peace and let go.”

Instead, Halevy recommends giving verbal permission for your loved one to go. “You can say things like, ‘Mom, we’re going to be OK without you’ or ‘Dad, you’ve struggled with this. You’ve been everything to us, we love you, it’s time.” Halevy remembers one family that talked about how their mother always used to say, “I’m waiting on that green light.” “So they held up a green light on their cell phone over the bed and she passed,” Halevy says.

Respect their final moments

“In the last 24 hours people are doing work to prepare for this huge transition,” says Egan. “It is not work you or I have done, and that can be a little bit frightening. But don’t be upset or insulted if the person who is dying isn’t interested in you right now.”

“They become more withdrawn. They speak less and communicate less,” says Halevy. “They start to push people away because they need to separate. They are going somewhere where no one else can go with them.”

And they may begin to have visions and dreams of people and things that you don’t see, even reaching out to them, say Egan and Halevy. “They start seeing loved ones and family members and friends who have passed on,” says Halevy. “People write it off as delirium, confusion, or medication rather than seeing them as amazing moments in their lives. Invite that person to talk about the significance and meaning of what they are experiencing.”

Egan sees her role—and the role of anyone who is supporting a loved one—as “being a companion on this journey, so they don’t feel so alone, but it’s not up to me to decide how it goes.”

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