Monthly Archives: May 2013

Facing Death (What to Say to a Loved One Near Death)

Pala was lying on the couch in the small room that consisted of the majority of her home inside the assisted living facility. She’d lost a lot of weight, and her hands shook as she tried to lift them. It was easier for her to keep her eyes closed and her body still, silently contemplating what could be the last moments of her life. Her great-granddaughter entered the room, having just been woken up and told this might be the last time she would get to speak to her great-grandmother. The young girl had never been so close to death before. Seeing her great-grandmother in that weakened state made her want to cry, but she didn’t know if she should. She wanted to say something, anything, but what could she say? She was confused and sad and uncertain, so she said nothing. Pala passed away three days later.

As our loved ones age, we know that death will be the inevitable end to our relationship with them. However, this knowledge does not make us any more prepared for the moment when we must let our loved ones go. We may feel sad, depressed, even confused, but most of us will feel uncertain. Just as Pala’s great-granddaughter, we may not have a lot of experience with loved ones near death, and we might question what we should do or, more importantly, what we should say.

When in doubt, we should always allow our loved ones to guide our conversations and actions. Sometimes it may be appropriate and best for them if we say nothing and simply allow our presence and love to be felt. Sometimes bringing up the past could lend to a few very sentimental and precious hours in which you can cry, talk, and laugh about your relationship.

If it is a disease or illness that is slowly taking your loved ones life, don’t focus on that. Michelle Colon-Johnson, diagnosed with stage four cancer, said “If I wanted to talk about the cancer, it felt good to know I could talk to others, but I never wanted to be treated differently.” Let your loved ones know that you are there for them, that you love them, and that if they want to talk, you are always willing to listen. Then if they wish to talk about the illness or disease, allow them to bring up the subject, otherwise focus on the important moments of your relationship – both past and present – and enjoy every minute you have left with your loved one.

Another topic you should always avoid in the presence of someone near death is clichés and platitudes. Psychiatrist Marcia Sirota said “Saying things like, ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ and ‘It’s God’s will,’ can make the person feel like the fact that they’re dying is their fault. Trying to reassure a patient they’ll be o.k. can be hurtful because they know it isn’t true. Saying things like ‘You’re strong’ or ‘You’ll get through the illness’ is equally problematic. Maybe they don’t feel strong and need to feel like they can be afraid. You need to give them the space for their fears.”

Sometimes in our ‘do it yourself’ society we feel that we shouldn’t cry, and we shouldn’t show fear. We feel like it is almost a social requirement to ‘be strong’ in the face of death. This is not true and the sooner you can get this type of thinking out of your head and out of the head of your loved one, the easier their last moments will be for the both of you. Fear is natural. Sadness and tears are natural. Allow you and your loved ones to experience these emotions. Bottling them up will only end up putting a strain on your relationship with your loved one during their last few days or weeks and will make the grieving process much more difficult to endure.

Mercia Tapping’s husband was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and subsequently died. She advised the best thing you can do for you and your loved one in the face of impending death is to be completely open with each other and make sure nothing is left unsaid. Tapping said, “We faced this disease head on and squeezed the last out of his life together. We discussed all aspects of his burial and funeral. He wanted me to deliver his eulogy and I did. Because we faced this so openly together I have no regrets and nothing was left unsaid or undone, which makes his death still painful but complete.”

End-of-life care and funeral arrangements are not the typical topics you think of discussing when facing the inevitable death of a loved one, but these topics are essential. In the Complete Guide to Caring for Aging Loved Ones, it is advised to “approach these discussions gently, focusing on the desire to know [your loved one’s] wishes in order to follow them.” Though these topics need to be discussed, you don’t want the focus of conversation in the last moments of your loved one’s life to be legal and financial matters. Take the time to discuss these matters when you and your loved one are healthy enough to discuss them thoroughly and have everything taken care of so that there are no extra burdens or stressors upon your shoulders near or after your loved one’s passing.

Your loved one’s last moments may be full of sadness, confusion, fear, and regret, but they should also be full of thankfulness and love. Hold their hand, laugh with them, cry with them, hold them close, and, when the time comes, let them go. Leave nothing unsaid, nothing undone, and take the time to create some final memories that will stay with you for a lifetime.

Various quotations taken from Candace Rotolo’s article “Words of Comfort: What to Say When Someone is Dying.
Quote from the Complete Guide to Caring for Aging Loved Ones taken from a response article to the question “How do we prepare for the death of an elderly loved one?
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