Quality Time: Conversations with Your Loved One Who’s Dying

Like an arrow to your heart, the news shatters your reality: someone you love is seriously ill and has only months (or even weeks) to live.  You know that from this moment, nothing will ever be the same.  But what do you do now?  How can you talk to your loved one and make the most of the time remaining?

The anxiety you feel is normal, but don’t let it get in the way of spending meaningful time in conversation with your loved one. Here are some suggestions to help.

  • Be honest. Don’t try to pretend your loved one’s condition isn’t as serious as it is or protect him from the truth.  In her landmark work on death and dying, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross found that when people are close to death, they’re generally cognizant that their time is short; when family and friends refuse to discuss the inevitable, the dying person is left to face his emotions alone.  Let your honesty open the door to intimacy and free your loved one from isolation. Talk about your feelings, and invite him to share his; then, have the courage to listen. If he’s angry, grief-stricken, or fearful, allow him to express those feelings without judgment. If he wants to, discuss funeral arrangements with him. Tell him how much you love him, and how much you’ll miss him, but also tell him about your plans for the future and assure him you’ll be okay after he’s gone.
  • Focus on the positive. As your loved one faces the end, she may reflect on the way she has lived her life – the good and the bad. No life is free of regret, and we all fall short of our own ideals, but you can help her find peace by accentuating the positive. Talk about the good things she did in life, and talk about the personal qualities that define who she is – loving, understanding, thoughtful, kind. Tell her she is a good wife, mother, daughter, sister, or friend. Help her see how her life has mattered and how she has enriched the lives of others.
  • Take one day at a time. As surreal as it may seem, life goes on – you have to go to work, shop for groceries, pay the bills. Accept the fact that no amount of time with your loved one will ever be enough; whether you have 2 weeks or 20 more years together, you’ll never say everything you want to say, do all the things you want to do, or go all the places you’d like to go together. Just being together and living life – watching a movie, playing cards, praying – is what matters now. Enjoy each moment for what it is.
  • Have fun. Grieving isn’t a 24/7 job. It’s humanly impossible to sustain the heavy emotions of grief around the clock for an indefinite period of time – and who would want to? Don’t feel like you have to maintain a somber mood and feel sad all the time. When you can, laugh and play with your loved one. Help her to live until she dies, and enjoy the laughter that’s so good for the soul.
  • Treasure your memories. Perhaps the most important part of your final hours and days with your loved one is the opportunity to make memories you’ll treasure forever. Spend some time viewing photo albums and memorabilia together, and encourage your loved ones to share stories from her life.
  • Share the silence. When your loved one can no longer speak, continue to talk to him. Read to him, talk about the weather, and tell him how you spent your day, but don’t pressure yourself to fill every remaining minute with activity or conversation. Share the silence; sit and hold his hand, or pray quietly at his bedside. Allow your presence to speak for itself.
  • Let it be. As your loved one moves closer to death, he may become confused and disoriented. He may talk about going to work, for example, or about chores he has to do. Something inside may be telling him there are things he has to do before he leaves. There’s no need to correct him when this happens. Instead, be soothing and agree with him as much as possible. Avoid arguing about real or imagined hurts, past or present. This is the time for forgiveness, acceptance, and letting go.

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