Being with a Person who is Dying

*** Time for this post?  Reading…5 minutes. Viewing…an hour, but not necessarily all at once.

My life has not yet required me to be on hand when someone is dying. And I’m pretty sure that can’t continue. So I’ve been looking for good information about how to be with someone who’s near the end of life.

Visiting someone who’s dying…

I found an excellent article about deathbed visiting which offers very practical tips based onthe author’s challenging experience of managing the death of a family member at home.

As my father-in-law lay in his deathbed, after an illness so brief his friends and colleagues were stunned to hear he had entered his last days, people wanted to say goodbye. So in those last days, we got a crash course on how to visit the dying. … I will love some of those visitors forever. Others I wouldn’t mind never seeing again. But collectively they taught us some valuable lessons.

Her article is recommended reading for everyone. If you don’t have time now, it’s worth bookmarking for when you’re in the situation. Here are some of the main points, explained more fully in the article.

  • Be in touch, but don’t expect a response.
  • Say “We would love to visit,” or “Are you receiving visitors,” not “When can we visit?”
  • Be ready for plans to change at any moment.
  • Bring treats.
  • Don’t bring plants.
  • Handle silence.
  • Don’t be needy.
  • Have something to say.

Something to say!?

What on earth can you possibly say to a person who is dying? Hallie Levine, in the AARP newsletter, suggests showing support by saying things such as:

  • I wish this wasn’t happening to you.
  • This must be hard news for you to share.
  • I’m here for you.
  • I’m thinking of you.

She further advises being as specific and concrete as possible about any potential assistance.

“People often say, ‘if you need anything, call me,’ but that puts the onus on the person dealing with the life-threatening disease,” says Rebecca Axline, a licensed clinical social worker at the Houston Methodist Neurological Institute. “Instead, say, ‘Can I bring a casserole by Thursday?’ or drop off a gift card for a massage or dinner at a local restaurant.”

Things NOT to say…

From a helpful article in AgingCare:

“Avoid clichés or platitudes,” notes psychiatrist and author Marcia Sirota, M.D. “Saying things like, ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ and ‘It’s God’s will,’ can make the person feel like their illness is their fault.”

Saying things like “You’re strong” and “You’ll get through this” is equally problematic. Although it can be tempting to reassure a patient that they’ll be okay, this approach can be hurtful because it does not acknowledge the patient’s feelings and concerns. “Maybe they don’t feel strong right now and need to feel like they can be afraid,” Dr. Sirota adds. “You need to give them the space they need to share their fears and come to terms with them.”

The Marie Currie Hospice in the UK has a good overview article by social worker Glyn Thomas. It has links to in-depth discussion on topics such as:

  • What to do when someone is in denial about their diagnosis
  • How to help with day-to-day caring
  • What it’s like to live with a terminal diagnosis
  • Helping someone come to terms with a terminal diagnosis

Don’t wince when tough things come up…

Here’s one reason we should all come to terms with death—to be able to support those around us. It helps the dying go in peace if they’ve been able to talk about how they feel and what’s on their mind.

This could include loose ends such as making a will if there isn’t one, giving away belongings, etc. And fears about the unknowns ahead. If you can be comfortable listening, you’ll be of great service. And if you’re willing to facilitate completing undone tasks or locating resource people to allay the fears, that’s a bonus.

Most of us find this a challenge because we’ve grown up without role models for being with people as they approach death. Becki Hawkins, in the video below, is a terrific role model. A hospice nurse and chaplain, Becki has been at the bedside of terminally ill patients for more than 30 years. She is the author of Transitions: A Nurse’s Education About Life And Death.

This is a long video but easily viewed one story at a time.

This is what I’ve found so far to help me be with someone who’s dying. Do you have any insights to share?

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