A profound result of medical advancements is that death has become less of a sudden and unexpected event and more of a prolonged process that begins with a diagnosis, proceeds through a period of treatment, and ends eventually in death. This process means that both terminally ill individuals, and their support network, increasingly must “live with death” for a prolonged, indefinite amount of time.
If your friend or family member is dying, this will be an extremely difficult time for the dying person and all who care about him or her. This period often necessitates being willing to discuss death with the dying loved one and their close supporters who are also distressed. Such issues as mortality, the possibility of an imminent life without the loved one, and existential angst, are generally unpleasant and difficult topics of discussion.
With our lifestyles being busier than those of earlier generations, we often do not have the time and space to make room to reflect and discuss these issues, or we worry about the emotional impact of spending too much time thinking about them. We may then use busyness as a means of distracting ourselves from processing and discussing it, which may even involve avoiding the dying person for fear of how we might feel, or fear of saying “the wrong thing” to them.
Confronting the reality
Confronting the difficult reality, that this person is dying, is the first step you can take to supporting them. You will probably come to accept it over time; however, it may not be until after their passing that you can completely acknowledge the reality. Understanding the physical illness or injury that is occurring is a helpful step in this process. Discussing it with the dying person, their family members or medical practitioners can help with this, as well as doing your own research.
A valuable gift you can give your loved one is presence. If you live nearby, you are in a position to be able to offer company in-person at your loved one’s time of need. If you do not live nearby, it may still be possible to arrange a visit at a time when your loved one is still functioning well enough to be able to participate and enjoy it. Nowadays, Skype, email and text messages are all alternative ways of being present. Old-fashioned phone calls and letters can also serve this function.
It is natural to feel uncomfortable when contemplating contacting or seeing your dying loved one. You may be concerned about how ill they will look, how you will feel when seeing them, not knowing what to say, and potentially saying “the wrong thing” and upsetting them. These are all normal concerns and emotions. Being aware that a certain meeting may be the last time you see your loved one alive can also place more pressure on the meetings to be enjoyable and meaningful, which can in itself create distress around visits and interactions.
It can be useful to consider what your loved one might need the most at the time you are visiting – share a favourite food, bring their favourite film to watch with them, bring a game that you both can play together, or some photos and memorabilia to demonstrate how much they mean to you. Take them for a walk or day trip somewhere beautiful. Do the things you would always enjoy doing with them.
Your presence communicates a willingness to walk the path alongside your loved one, and help them face the physical and emotional challenges of death. However, if they request alone time, give them this. They are likely to have fewer physical and emotional resources due to their physical deterioration, so rest and a break from people are also important.
Follow the lead of your loved one – their coping style may be different from yours. Some people cope by avoiding focusing on death, and others want to discuss the process and all their fears. Support your loved one in whatever way they want to cope – allow them to talk at their own pace and ensure that they are aware that you are willing to listen non-judgmentally. This means avoiding making comments about how they should or should not feel/react to what is happening, or telling them how they should be feeling or what they should be thinking.
If you can listen well and non-judgmentally, you can help your friend cope during this difficult time. Do not focus so much about what you will say, or saying “the right thing”. Concentrate on listening to the words your friend expresses.
Learn about their condition
You will be better equipped to help your loved one face the physical challenges of dying if you know more about their physical condition and what to expect as their deteriorate. There may also be physical considerations, such as exercises they can and cannot do, or foods they can and cannot eat. Consult medical reference books at your local library, request information from educational associations, and with your loved one’s consent, you might also talk to their doctor.
If you educate yourself about the condition, you can be a more understanding listener when your loved one wants to talk about their experience. You will also be more prepared yourself for the illness’ last stages.
Offer practical help
Your loved one will probably need help with some daily activities. Preparing food, doing laundry, cleaning or being driven to and from the hospital for treatment are just a few of the practical ways you can demonstrate your love for them.
Realise your limits
If you feel you simply can’t cope with the situation, ask yourself, “What is going on for me right now?” and “What can I do to become more open and compassionate in times of need? Try not to completely avoid your friend if you feel this way. People with terminal illnesses are often abandoned by friends and family who feel too uncomfortable about their imminent death. If you cannot muster a visit, give them a call. If you cannot call, write. Let your loved one know that this situation is difficult for you while acknowledging that their fears and needs are very important to you as well.
Conversely, do not overburden yourself by behaving as though you are the only source of support for your loved one. It is important to take care of yourself too, and allow others in your loved one’s network the opportunity to offer assistance and care to them as well.
If someone you love is dying, you will likely need support as you explore your own feelings about it. Find someone who will listen without judgment as you talk about your feelings. Engage in self-care as well – ensure your diet is healthy, you get some exercise, and engage with activities and people who are valuable to you. It is perfectly natural to seek out a counselor or psychologist at a time like this, and many people find this a helpful outlet and source of support.
Wolfeit, A. D. (2016). Helping a Friend Who Is Dying. In Hospice. Retrieved from http://www.hospicenet.org/html/help_a_friend.html