Interacting with someone who is dying

Interacting with someone who is dying

Death can be a hard reality to accept, especially for those left behind. In many cases, death comes unannounced, but even when it is expected for any reason, no one is ever quite ready to deal with the death of a loved one. There are times where a loved one doesn’t simply pass away, but has to spend some time on a waiting for the inevitable. At times like this, accepting what is to happen is hard enough that we often find it difficult to see the person or engage them in conversations.

On the other hand, you may mean well but do not know what to say or how to go about saying it. You don’t know if you should talk about their condition, their impending death or just discuss other issues. There’s also the temptation to avoid all of those subjects altogether and distract them with completely different subjects. Sooner or later, death is something we all must face. And if there’s anything we’ve learnt about losing people, it is that we risk hurting people more by the things we don’t say until its too late.

When you are aware that a loved one will die soon, everything suddenly changes. We have seen this knowledge of an expected death draw families and friends even closer, but we have also seen it make things worse, because everything becomes awkward and people often do not know how to react. It is also important to note that people who are nearing the end of their life often react differently. Some may want to talk about it and others don’t. Try to understand the person’s disposition and follow their lead, it can be hurtful and dismissive when your dying loved one wants to discuss what will happen after they pass and you change the subject.

Before we move into tips that will help you engage in meaningful conversations with a dying loved one, it is important to clearly state what we have found to be true.

  • Talking about death is not harmful. There has been a misconception and superstition for many years that suggested that talking about death with the person who is dying will make them accept death and give up sooner. Truth is, that acceptance is important to make their passing easier, but it doesn’t in anyway make death come quicker than it otherwise would have.
  • Discussing death will likely not upset them. You’ll find that many dying people are as concerned about their loved ones as their loved ones are about them. So, if you’re trying not to upset them by not talking about what’s happening, chances are that they’re thinking the same thing. It is now your duty to make them understand that it’s okay to talk about their death. This is a chance to express concerns and unspoken fears, as well as reducing pent-up anxieties.
  • Silence can also be good sometimes. Being there and assuring your loved one that you’re paying attention and listening if they ever want to talk can actually be more important than talking about meaningless things just because you think silence will make things awkward. Just be there and listen. And even when they’re not saying anything, listen to their eyes, body language and mannerisms. This can also encourage them to talk.

Tips for Interacting with someone who is dying

If you are seeing or visiting a dying loved one, here are a few tips to consider.

  • Let the person lead

Whether you like it or not, your loved one who is nearing death will be the one to decide if they want to talk about death or not, and with whom. So, before you bring up a topic, be sure to listen to cues. Do not jump the gun. Again, silence is not such a bad thing, especially if you don’t know how to break the ice in such situations. Chances are that the person would break the silence by talking about how they hate being in bed, or a new symptom they’re experiencing or how they’re going to miss a future event. Such passing comments can present an opportunity to talk about what is happening to them.

  • Be open about what you know

Years ago, doctors used to advise loved ones not to tell a dying patient that they’re actually dying. While this practice may still be around in several places, it is no longer mainstream. However, you should only discuss death with a loved one when you’re sure the person is open to the discussion. Let them know that you know what is happening to them and that you know they have a few days, weeks or months left to live. This makes it easy for them to say how they feel or share the concerns they have, without the risk of unsettling your mind.

  • Use your hands

Touching is a great way to communicate intimately too. Hold their hands or just place a hand above theirs when you talk or even when there’s nothing more to say. This gesture connects more than words can ever do. It also lets them know you’re there with them, even when they can’t respond. That reassuring touch and presence may just be all they need to stay strong in that moment.

  • Deal with Hard Feelings and Regrets

Nobody wants to carry a burden to the grave. It is important that you clear each other’s conscience and bury any hatchets. Tell them you’re sorry if you have hurt them in any way. Ask them to forgive you. And if they have hurt you in anyway, it’s important you say the words, “I forgive you” and mean it too. It will do you and your loved one a lot of good to approach their final days with a clear conscience. This peace can be very instrumental to their joy in those last days.

  • Say, “I love you” freely

If you do love the person, this is the time to say it without seeking a reason or ‘great’ opportunity. Those three words can make a huge difference in a person’s life, even if they have just a few days left. But it’s also good for you to finally express how you feel. You’ll have less regrets, except that you may have held back for too long and couldn’t enjoy the love you’ve held all the while.

  • Say “thank you” for all they’ve done

It might seem like you’ll need to use all the magic words we learnt as kids. However, only say them if you mean them. There won’t be any other chance in the future. Appreciating a person’s role and impact in your life and the community is truly dignifying, even in a person’s final days. It gives them a sense of fulfilment- one that says they have lived a good life and made an impact. In the end, there’s no fear of leaving the earth feeling like one never actually lived.

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