Supporting someone who is dying

Supporting someone who is dying

Though it can be very difficult, there can be few more natural instincts than wanting to help a dying family member or friend. Your compassion for your loved one will inevitably mean that you too will share in – and want to help relieve - their suffering. At the same time, it’s only natural to have your own worries.

How best to help?

The process of dying is not usually something experienced alone. A death often touches many lives. And it is a natural instinct to want to offer the dying support.

As someone who is important to your loved one, without being asked you have been given a leading role in this final play. As a result, you may be unsure about how best to help.

What did they need from you before they were dying?

Dr Simon Noble, writing in the book How to Have a Good Death, advises: “One way to approach the question of what the dying person needs from you is to consider what he or she needed from you when they weren’t dying.

“If you are the person’s partner, that’s what he or she still needs: someone to be there. If he or she was your mate who you went down to the pub and talked rubbish with, that’s what he or she needs now: someone to hang out with.”

Openness and honesty

He adds: “From conversations with patients who are dying, it seems that the thing they value most from friends, loved ones and professionals is openness and honesty.

“Admitting that you don’t know what to say is more valued that some banal comment offering false hope or promises. They are not looking for you to make it all right. They just want you to be you.”1

Specific concerns

People who are dying often have particular worries about those who are closest to them.

This may include concerns about what will happen to family members once they’re gone, fears that they are becoming a ‘burden’, or a wish to repair damaged relationships.

Differing attitudes

They may also have different attitudes to talking about their death. Some may wish to discuss it openly – which family members can find very hard.

While others cope with the situation by denying the reality of what will happen. Both of these scenarios may make it very difficult to discuss the ‘D-word’ with your loved one.

Discussing the ‘D-word’

You may feel that if you allow your loved one to discuss their death, then that means that all hope is lost.

On the other hand, wishing to protect your loved one, you may avoid talking about death altogether, or attempt to ‘take their mind off it’ by discussing more cheerful matters.

Margaret Rudgeley from Buckhurst Hill in Essex lost her husband Bill suddenly to a heart attack after he had been battling cancer for some time.

Going over practical matters

Margaret says: “We were always really open with each other about death and dying. Bill was angry about dying, but he was always more worried about how I would cope after he was gone.”

They also openly discussed practical arrangements for after his death. “Bill was very patriotic”, explained Margaret. “He told me that he loved the Royal British Legion anthem ‘Nimrod’ and that he wanted that played at his funeral – which we did.

Being open and reassuring

At this stage, it’s important to be open to your loved one and to reassure them that if there is anything on their mind that they would like to share, you are ready to listen.

They may have practical concerns they wish to discuss which you might find difficult, such as loose ends they want to tie up, or plans they would like to make for their funeral.

It’s very important for a dying person to feel that their wishes have been heard and met when it suits them – even if others feel this is not the right time.

Caring and coping with exhaustion

Some of you may be finding the care of your loved one or friend a trying experience. This is fairly common. Carers often experience what is known as ‘compassion fatigue’ – exhaustion due to the strain of providing constant care.

The word ‘compassion’ comes from the Latin compassio, which means ‘suffering along with’. You are accompanying your loved one on what may be an agonising final journey, which is likely to also be a painful path for you too. This is one of the greatest gifts you can give a person.

As a result, it’s not selfish to have your own worries or to admit that you too are finding things hard.

Palliative care teams can offer advice

Dr Kathryn Mannix from Newcastle, who over her many years in palliative care has heard a good deal of these concerns, says: “In my work in end of life care, I frequently see the conflict between the amount of time and attention the sick person needs and the time carers need to look after everything else, including themselves.

“They worry about what will happen to the person they love, and also what the consequences will be for them. Many people feel guilty about ‘thinking about myself’ when in fact it’s really important to manage those challenges.”

Dying support

She adds: “Concerns might include financial worries: it may be that the sick person’s income was a vital part of family security. Partners and children are bound to be very worried about how they will cope financially during the illness and after the death.

“Palliative care teams can often access expert advice, so it’s really worth asking about financial worries.”

Read about advance care planning.

The Stabat Mater is a famous medieval hymn which tells of the great suffering that the Virgin Mary experienced as she accompanied Jesus in his dying hours. The hymn begins:

“At the cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to Jesus to the last.

Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
All His bitter anguish bearing,
Now at length the sword had pass’d.”

Footnotes

  1. Henderson, D. et. al (2006) How to have a good death (London: Dorling Kindersley), p59-60.