How to Respond When Your Loved One Says, “I’m Dying”

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How to Respond When Your Loved One Says, “I’m Dying”

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I remember the first time she said it. It was the middle of the night, and I was changing her clothes and stripping her bed for the second time that evening. She was extremely weak physically, though her mind was perfect. Up to this point, we both "pretended" that she would eventually be okay, so she really caught me off guard and I didn't know how to respond. I didn't negate what she said, but I failed to encourage her to talk about it.

This was my first time intensely caring for someone who experienced such a rapid decline in health. One Friday Mama Glo (my father-in-laws partner) was playing golf; on Sunday she was in the ER; on Wednesday she was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, Stage 3 (the highest stage for her disease) and would live only six more months. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 so now I have a wealth of information regarding that moment and what I could have done differently.

First of all, while that statement hits you--the family caregiver--with a boatload of emotions, this is one moment that is all about the person you care for. Take a deep breath; realize that they may be frightened and confused and need to share what they are feeling. It is an enormous gift to help someone die. I know how hard it is to contain your emotions in that moment, and later we will talk about how to take care of YOU at this time; but right now, it is important to have a plan for how you might respond in a manner that supports the dying.

Start with a hug.

Validate the statement with something like "I'm sorry you are going through this. Do you want to talk about it?" Ask how you can best care for them at this time. Would they like to speak to a chaplain or rabbi? Would they like to speak with a grief counselor? It would most certainly be helpful to both of you if hospice could be involved at this time as the staff is trained in helping the dying and their family members handle death and dying with grace and dignity. Death doulas can also be of great support during the dying process.

Allow your loved one to share their wishes with you.

It is frequently our instinct to shush people when they start talking about their own death; try not to do this. Take notes. Write down what they say. If they tell you about a treasured piece of furniture that has been in the family for generations, you will want to remember the details later. You have a lot on your plate right now, so don't leave things to chance; take notes. Ask about memorial services; songs, psalms, flowers--anything that will allow you to honor your loved one most authentically.

Discuss your loved one's end of life wishes.

Now all of these things don't need to be discussed in one sitting. Bite-sized conversations are best. Like picking flowers in a garden, you will gather details of your loved one's wishes and be able to create a wonderful bouquet of memories and tributes when the time comes. The next time Mama Glo and I talked about her feelings, I asked if she wanted to see a Palliative Care Specialist, and she was very interested in exploring this option.

Palliative Care Specialists are a relatively new and welcome addition to patient care. According to the Mayo Clinic website, "Palliative care offers pain and symptom management and emotional and spiritual support when you face a chronic, debilitating or life-threatening illness. Palliative care specialists work with you, your family and your care team to help improve your quality of life during and after treatment for your specific medical concern. It is provided in tandem with life-prolonging therapies."

Take care of your own emotions.

Most likely you will be by your loved one's side until the end, and you want to be able to reflect on this time as a precious gift. Speak to family members or friends about your concerns and feelings. It is okay to cry--even in front of the person you're caring for. Remember to say "I love you," "you are forgiven," "I'm sorry," and so on. Now is the time to prepare yourself as well as your loved one for the inevitable.

Remember that when someone says "I think I'm dying," he or she may instinctively know something that the doctors do not, so honor the feelings. None of Mama Glo's doctors ever actually said out loud to her that she was dying until we met with the Palliative Care Specialist. You and your loved one deserve the peace and closure that comes from open and honest communication at this difficult time.

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Goldie

A friend of mine died yesterday after a long battle with cancer. We knew it was coming soon. Just before Christmas, she made the decision to stop all treatment, knowing she would have maybe two months. Less than 12 hours before she passed, she dictated a beautiful goodbye letter to her family and friends.

anita0419

Amy, this is a very hard subject to talk about. I think the caree handles it better than we do. My mother started talking like this about 6 months before she passed. The first time I didn't know what to say. I finally started saying that it was in God's hands and only he knew when it was time. My mother had a very strong faith and she accepted what I said with a smile. I think this made her happy that I believed it too. The last couple of weeks she couldn't talk and I held her hands and told her that I would be OK and she should go if my dad came for her. That was hard to say too and I said it with tears. I think she needed to hear that and when the time came 2 weeks later she was gone. This is something that will happen to all of us taking care of someone. You told a beautiful way to do it. Good job!!!

Amy Bellis

Sally, thanks for commenting. I definitely wanted to walk away at first...it scared me...and I worried about saying the wrong thing, when in reality, all I really needed to do was listen and offer support, which I fortunately figured out quickly.

Amy Bellis

Thank you for commenting. I agree...grief support groups are very helpful and a great way to process any conflicting feelings that linger.