Supporting a loved one who is dying can be challenging for even the most resilient person. It is human nature to want to "fix" problems for people we love, but death is not something that can be fixed. When faced with this reality, many people are at a loss for what to say or do. However, even though the inevitable can't be changed, there are ways to make a dying person's final months, weeks, and days more meaningful. Below is a list of 10 ways to support a loved one who is dying
1) Provide physical comfort
It is common for people who are dying to feel discomfort. Some people may have difficulty breathing, while others may have difficulty when they move or they may suffer pain and discomfort. Fortunately, caregivers or medical support staff can help during this time.
For example, pain killers can help reduce or eliminate pain. If the individual cannot bathe independently, caregivers can assist with that. In some cases, a person that needs this help may feel more comfortable being washed by a family member instead of by a personal care worker or nurse.
Some caregivers worry about physically touching their loved one for fear of causing discomfort or pain. However, a lack of physical contact can make a person feel isolated. Physical contact is important and can be comforting, uplifting, and reassuring. It can be as simple as holding their hand, helping them stay clean, shaving them, or other simple acts that provide physical contact.
2) Support mental and emotional needs
It can be difficult for a dying person and their loved ones to confront and come to terms with imminent death. And it can invoke depression or anxiety.
The dying person may feel uncertainty over what will happen to them after they die or fear what will happen to those they leave behind. Likewise, caregivers may worry about how they will handle life without their loved one.
Some people suffer anticipatory grief, which is when friends and family start to grieve for a person before they have died. It can invoke anger, resentment, extreme sadness, and depression. Some caregivers will feel a strong desire to make the final days count, while others will retreat and focus on finding ways to change or avoid negative emotions. These feelings are normal and natural, but ignoring them can make the situation worse. Therefore, supporting the mental and emotional needs of someone dying should include a plan to ensure you also get the support you need.
Here are a few ways to to seek help for yourself:
- Talk to a counsellor or therapist.
- Join a support group.
- Talk and listen.
- Create a comfortable atmosphere.
- Be sure to get enough physical contact from friends and family.
- Play music.
3) Assist with everyday tasks
When someone is dying, they may not have the energy or strength to complete day-to-day tasks. So offering to do these tasks or finding a way to get them handled can help make things easier for your dying loved one. It eliminates or relieves some of their stress and frees up their time so they can focus on what they need.
This assistance can include tasks like watering plants or feeding pets or basic household cleaning and chores. It may also include providing palliative care, which can be handled by friends and family, but may benefit from the assistance of health care professionals.
4) Visit often
Dying can feel like an isolating experience. However, when a dying person has people around them, they will feel less alone. So be sure to visit often. This may not be easy, especially when they are closer to the end. It may be even more challenging if the person who is dying is not fully conscious, does not remember you, or is not responsive. Frequent visits can also help provide closure for both you and your loved one. It also an opportunity to say your goodbyes, which can help with healing and grieving.
4) Talk to them
When someone is dying, care needs and handling personal affairs can seem like a priority over other activities. However, there is value in providing a safe space to talk and vent for both your dying loved one and for yourself. Nonetheless, it may be challenging to find the right words. Here is some general advice and guidance on what to say to someone who is dying (this is discussed in more detail in this article: What to say to someone who is dying):
- Follow their lead (e.g., let them set the tone and pace).
- Don't shy away from difficult conversations (e.g., making funeral arrangements)
- Discuss death without hyper-focusing on it.
- Express your feelings and emotions through words.
- Don't try to change, fix, or justify things.
- Listen and offer support.
- Have patience with yourself and your loved one.
- Avoid unwarranted discussions about religions and personal beliefs.
- Try not to focus inward (e.g., talking only about how you feel or how you would feel in their situation).
- Avoid cliché or corny comments about death.
6) Give them a role in end-of-life and funeral decisions
It can be challenging to talk about funeral arrangements and personal or legal matters (e.g., wills, distribution of assets, rehoming pets, etc.) However, it is necessary because it will help avoid potential confusion and stress among family members after the person dies. It also allows their feelings to be expressed and their wishes to be honoured.
7) Help them fulfill their final wishes
Depending on the type of illness or the amount of time a person has left, there may be some things they would like to accomplish before they die. This can include going on a trip to a country they always wanted to visit or resolving a conflict with an estranged family member or friend. Whatever it is, helping them fulfill these final wishes will be appreciated. Of course, this should be within someone's means. But helping your loved one check things off their bucket list can be a great way to bond and make lifelong memories.
8) Say goodbye
Being faced with the inevitability of the death of a loved one does not make saying goodbye any easier. However, knowing they are going to die provides a privilege that not everyone gets.
When someone dies suddenly, many people do not get the chance to say what they wanted to say, which can lead to regret or feelings of guilt. Knowing someone is going to die and the relative timeline provides an opportunity to tell the dying person what they mean to you, how much you will miss them, how you are going to remember them, and so on. Feelings, emotions, and laughter can be shared on both ends, creating new memories and reminiscing on the old ones. It can also help with closure and the processing of grieving.
9) Consider their spiritual needs
If religion or spirituality is important to your loved one, be sure those needs are tended to before they die. For some people, this can mean arranging a meeting with a religious community leader for them (e.g., arranging to have last rites performed by a priest). Likewise, others may find comfort in prayer, listening to religious music or reading from religious texts. So do you best to accommodate any requests, even if your own spiritual needs or religious beliefs differ from theirs.
For some, spiritual needs may involve reflecting on the meaning of life or resolving issues with those they have had disagreements. Spirituality is important and should not be ignored. Even if it is not important in your own life, be sure to respect and provide space for the beliefs of your dying loved one and accommodate them where possible.
10) Make the best of the time you have left
Regardless of what you do to make a loved one's final weeks and days more meaningful, losing them will still be difficult. It is natural for people to feel as though they could have done more. It can be easy to fixate on regret and guilt, but it can also waste the time you have left. There is no right or wrong way to be with someone who is dying. All you can do is take advantage of the time you have with them and support them to the best of your ability and with the best intentions. It may test you strength and your ability to cope with your own emotions. Still, do you best to be patient and provide understanding with them and yourself.
You can ask our experts at Eirene about end-of-life issues and resources as well as any questions you may have about funerals, including cremation and aquamation. See an email to email@example.com. To make funeral arrangements, click here. We serve Ontario and Nova Scotia families.