When Someone You Care About Is Gravely Ill

You’ve recently learned that someone you care about is going to die, and now that the shock has begun to wear off, you’re wondering what you can or should do to help. Should you put on a happy face and a positive attitude, pretending that nothing has changed? Should you be at your loved one’s side every minute you can? You have so many thoughts and feelings you’d like to share with your loved one, but you certainly don’t want to upset her. How can you know what’s right and what’s wrong?

First of all, close your eyes. Take a deep breath, and then another. Relax. Your concern for your loved one and your desire to support him are good things, but worrying about getting it all right is futile. The anxiety you may feel is understandable, particularly if you’ve never found yourself in this role before, but the important thing is that you are ready, willing, and able to accompany your loved one on his final journey, and that’s all anyone can ask.

Following are some suggestions to guide you the coming days and weeks as you look for ways to support your loved one.

Communicating with Your Loved One

Start by letting your loved one know that you’re there for her, and you will be to the end, as long she wants you to be. Tell her that you’re willing to listen to her concerns, and then practice being a good listener. Allow her to express her feelings, and try not to judge. If your friend says, “I wish I could just get this over with,” don’t say, “Oh, you don’t mean that!” Instead, try to reflect her feelings: “It sounds like you’re tired and hurting.”

Also, remember that communication is a two-way street. Don’t assume that you know what your friend needs – ask him. Would he like you to cook for him, for example, or would he prefer to do that himself for as long as he can?

If your knowledge that your loved one is dying is causing you serious emotional pain, it’s probably best to vent those feelings with someone else. This time is about your loved one and his feelings. On the other hand, it’s okay to let your loved know you’re sad, and that you are going to miss him. Be sure to tell him you love him.

Acceptance and Denial

One of the things your support can do for your loved one is to help her come to terms with the fact that she’s dying. Ideally, your loved one will come to accept that her time on earth is drawing short, but then again, she may not. Your job here is to remember that there is no right or wrong way to approach death. Your role is to take your cues from your loved one and accompany her on her journey.

If your loved one is truly in denial that her condition is grave, encourage him to talk about his fears. It may be that he is afraid of pain or what awaits him on the other side. He may worry that his illness is causing financial or emotional pain for his family. By talking about his fears, he may be able to knock them down to size, and together you may find some solutions that will gradually allow him to accept his condition. You might also encourage him to talk with a pastoral counselor or social worker who is experienced in working with the dying.

A Question of Time

How much time you spend with your loved one is a matter for discussion. Talk to her to determine what her needs and expectations are, and be realistic when you tell her how much you can give. Although your love one is dying, life goes on, and so do work, family, and social obligations. You have laundry to do, bills to pay, and kids to care for. Let your loved one know how much time you can give her and when you are available.

As Death Draws Near

When death approaches, your presence can be a tremendous source of strength and comfort for your loved one. Try to stay in tune to her needs – offering pain medication, spiritual resources, a sip of water, or whatever comfort measures you can give. Remember to touch her, and perhaps share some memories of happy times you spent together. Let her know you will always remember her.

If you observe that your loved one is struggling, or if you think she is hanging on for your sake, touch her and tell her you are going to miss her, but that you will be okay when she’s gone. Let her know it’s okay to let go.

This is a quiet, sacred time, but keeping a vigil can also be exhausting. It’s important to take breaks, have a bite to eat and something to drink, and generally take care of yourself. Naturally you want to be there when your loved one dies, but remember that the timing of his death is out of your control.

Share Your Experience

Have you had the sad honor of supporting a loved one through a terminal illness? What advice do you have for others who want to help?

Discuss: When Someone You Care About Is Gravely Ill

One Response
  • I’ve been with several loved ones in their last days, including my husband. It is exhausting and emotionally draining, so don’t feel guilty if you must go home to get some rest. You’ll be logging some long hours in hospital or hospice chairs; it’s a good idea to wear loose, comfortable clothing.

    Among the last senses to go are hearing and smell. Be sure to wear a favorite fragrance, or bring a piece of your own un-laundered clothing to place near your loved one, with your scent on it. Be sure to talk to your loved one, in kind, gentle ways.

    The dying choose their own time to depart this world, as any critical care nurse will tell you. Don’t be upset if you aren’t in the room, or you just walked out for a moment. It’s quite common.

    Comment by Mary Lee Robinson — December 28, 2014 @ 11:02 am

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